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Bergen freeholder calls for prosecutor’s investigation of county police role in sheriff’s officer stop

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

UPDATE: Bergen County Freeholder Tracy Zur, who chairs the board’s Law and Public Safety Committee, today called for an investigation by county Prosecutor John L. Molinelli of a traffic stop of a fellow freeholder that ignited a battle between the county police and the sheriff’s office.

Zur’s request followed one by fellow Democratic Freeholder Steve Tanelli, who called on county Executive Kathleen Donovan and his own board to fully investigate the incident. That includes obtaining the dash-cam videos from the police cruisers involved, Tanelli, said.

“Currently, the County Police and the Sheriff’s Office are conducting separate yet similar investigations into the same incident,” Zur ( above, left ) said. “It seem to me that it would be more productive and cost-effective for this matter to be turned over to the Prosecutor’s office so that one fair, unbiased and most importantly apolitical investigation can take place.”

She added: “This is a prime example of why two separate county police departments are ineffective and a merger of the Sheriff’s office with the County Police Department is necessary,”

Donovan “has reached out to the Prosecutor about him investigating,” Jeanne Baratta, her chief-of-staff, told CLIFFVIEW PILOT this afternoon. “She will be having a press conf(erence) on Tuesday regarding this matter.”

NJ.com requested the BCPD video of the incident but said it was denied by Bergen County Public Safety Director Brian Higgins, the county police chief, who said it is “part of an ongong investigation into a series of incidents.”

“The video will not be released until it is an appropriate point in time,” Higgins said, according to the story ( SEE: Bergen County police decline to release video of freeholder’s traffic stop ).

This follows a June incident on the New Jersey Turnpike in which a State Police trooper said he was confronted by two BCPD officers he found in an unmarked vehicle on the highway.

“Our review shows that we can be proud of the way our officers reacted,” a State Police officer with direct knowledge of the incident told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “We can’t say the same for the other guys.”

( SPECIAL REPORT: NJ State trooper confronted by Bergen County police on Turnpike, investigation demanded )

The recent flare-up began Monday, after CLIFFVIEW PILOT published excerpts from a report written by a Bergen County Sheriff’s officer who said a pair of county police officers “distracted and intimidated” him, asking a series of unnecessary questions about his job, after he stopped Freeholder Maura McMahon DeNicola ( above, middle ) for driving her husband’s car with an expired registration last week.

( SEE: Bergen sheriff’s officer claims being ‘distracted, intimidated’ by county police after stopping freeholder )

Soon after the stop, Officer Vicent Surace wrote, “a uniformed Bergen County Police Officer in a marked unit arrived on the scene.”

Moments later, he said, a plain-clothed Bergen County Police supervisor arrived in an unmarked car.

“These units were not requested by me or Sheriffs Operations to assist,” Surace noted.

“As I was trying to attend to the motor vehicle stop and give my full attention to Ms. DeNicola’s safety, the Bergen County Police Officers were attempting to engage me in several conversations,” Surace wrote. “They asked if I was in the Patrol Division and/or part of the SOG (Special Operations Group) Team.

“Neither of these conversations pertained to the motor vehicle stop,” Surace added, noting that he felt that he was “being intentionally distracted and intimidated by the Bergen County Police Officers.

“Instead of asking me if they could provide assistance to enhance the safety of the motorist or myself, they continued to ask questions about my job function(s) and engage me in unneccessary [unnecessary] conversation,” he said.

“This article does not reflect my experience,” DeNicola told CLIFFVIEW PILOT after being contacted. “I never identified myself as a freeholder, nor did I ask for or expect special treatment.

“I admit to the lapsed registration, which was immediately corrected. I did not summon County Police.

“Frankly, I am appalled that an officer of the law would use this to promote a political position, unless that was his agenda in the first place,” she said.

DeNicola, who is up for re-election on Nov. 5, recently reiterated her opposition to a plan favored by her Republican colleagues on the freeholder board to fold the county police department into the sheriff’s office.

Donovan, who has opposed a merger, appointed DeNicola to a committee that recommended against consolidation following a study.

Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino, who supports folding the county police into his agency, declined comment.

Higgins did not return calls, texts or emails from CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

“The county police were there because they thought the two sheriff’s officers there needed backup,” County Executive Kathleen Donovan’s chief of staff, Jeanne Baratta, told CLIFFVIEW PILOT . “You see it on the road all the time. They saw two cars there with a spotlight on, so they pulled up.”

Tanelli ( above ), a Democrat from North Arlington, said that the county police and sheriff’s office “can not continue on this current course and put public safety in Bergen County in jeopardy.

“Whether it be a routine traffic stop, an accident or a true emergency all first responders need to work cohesively….,” he added. “It is vital that personal opinion and outside distraction stay out of a the job.”

“[W]hen they are on the street performing the job that they are being paid to do, the taxpayers of Bergen County expect them to be professionals.”

Zur, also a Democrat, said: “I do not feel that an unbiased investigation can occur when both departments conducting these investigations were involved in the incident and one is being run by a political appointee of the Donovan/DeNicola administration.

“The allegations surrounding this incident are serious,” she added. “With both Sheriff Saudino and Freeholder DeNicola seeing re-election this year, I would feel more confident having the top law enforcement entity in the county conduct one unbiased investigation ensuring that any inappropriate actions related to this incident are discovered.”

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