Major changes are underway in the Jersey City Police Department, and Police Chief Robert Cowan, on the job only nine months, has been demoted from his position because he resisted those changes, according to Mayor Steven Fulop.
On June 25, the same day Fulop issued a letter informing the City Council that Cowan was being removed, the council introduced an ordinance to reshape the internal structure of the Police Department. These changes reflect the administration’s intent to implement better police practices and improve morale. The ordinance was a last minute addition to the council agenda at its June 23 caucus.
Cowan’s removal will be effective 20 days from notification per state law and will be the first of several administration changes. At the caucus, Public Safety Director James Shea alluded to resistance inside the department to the changes, but did not mention Cowan by name.
The council introduced the ordinance, which will have a public hearing July 16, without reference to the removal of Cowan, who will remain in the department as a deputy chief, his previous position.
The ordinance establishes a Table of Organization that outlines the structure of the department and positions desired for each level.
Council approval of a police Table of Organization has never been done in Jersey City prior to this, Shea said, and the revised structure will give a clearer picture to those seeking promotions what might be attainable.
This, according to Fulop, will provide clarity, eliminate politics – Cowan has been criticized by officers who claim he allegedly transferred them as “political retribution” – and be more consistent with federal guidelines for best practices within police departments.
“As [the Fulop administration approaches] the one-year mark, we also recognize there are issues which must be addressed in order to further improve our policing and morale in the Jersey City Police Department,” said Fulop.
An acting chief of the department will be named as overseer until a new chief is appointed.
“I want to thank Chief Cowan for his service and commitment to the Jersey City Police Department” said Mayor Fulop. “Particularly, he helped address an historic low number of officers in the department by redeploying personnel, dealt with our ongoing safety and infrastructure concerns at the Port Authority’s Global Marine Terminal due to heavy truck traffic, implemented safety measures during the Super Bowl, and worked with the Pulaski Closure Planning Team to develop a citywide traffic mitigation plan.”
Concerns about alleged Cowan retaliation
In his letter, Fulop pointed to his growing concern over the number of lawsuits alleging retaliation by Chief Cowan and Cowan’s resistance to best practices.
“This change clearly states that as an administration we expect a high standard and will always demand the best performance from our employees, as this is what Jersey City residents deserve,” said Fulop. “This is the first change of our year end review and it is clear we believe no job is permanent and performance on behalf of residents is a priority.”
In a letter to Cowan, Fulop said best practices procedures, which were not in place when he took office, will be implemented.
“The implementation of these best practices is a policy decision for the administration to make and requires structural changes to the JCPD that must be vigorously supported and implemented by the chief of police,” he said.
Fulop said Cowan repeatedly expressed opposition to these structural changes, even as late as June 23, when Shea gave notice to the City Council that the ordinance would be introduced.
“We simply cannot move forward with these necessary structural changes to the JCPD under your leadership,” Fulop wrote to Cowan. “We have also grown concerned with the number of lawsuits filed against your office for retaliation. As a part of this concern, and compounding it, are the continued assertions by the collective bargaining units representing your subordinates that they are unable to work with you.”
Changes will improve department structure
At the council caucus, Fulop was mum about the firing, and simply asked the council members for their support.
“Not everybody in the Police Department agrees on these changes, but I believe they made the Police Department better,” Shea said.
Shea said the changes had several goals. The ordinance will require future changes to be made through the City Council. The ordinance will also seek to use civilian department employees where ever possible to maximize the number officers and investigators on the street.
“The ratio of those doing police work is more important than the actual number,” he said. “We want a safe, solid ration of supervisors to officers. We also want promotions to be predictable. Officers put a lot of time in getting on the promotions list and it would not be fair if we did not give them an idea of what positions might be available.”
This would include disclosing what officers are planning retirements and in what time frame. The changes would also deal with training.
“There is no career track to become a detective,” he said. “An officer doesn’t know what to learn or what skills are needed for emergency service, or to join the motorcycle squad.”
“As you know I’m a proponent of having our own training academy,” Shea said. “This will allow us to have authority over the training of our own police and fire. The issues are different in an urban area than any other place in the state. We want our people trained for the job they are going to do over the next 25 years.”
The restructuring will also change the way the Police Department deals with civilian complains, Shea said, and how internal investigations are undertaken.
Sense of urgency
Fulop said he wanted to transform the JCPD a year ago, but has a sense of urgency that requires the ordinance to be passed as soon as possible.
“This will address some of the issues council members have raised in the past,” Fulop said.
Shea did not disparage the department.
“There are things we can improve on, although we know they are doing a good job,” Shea said. “We feel internal investigation is a little top heavy, can be used more fruitfully. We like to fix some of the areas of favoritism and get more aligned with federal best practices, which we are not now.”
One recommendation is that the internal affairs office, which investigates alleged police misconduct, should not be located in a police facility because it discourages people who might come forward. By complying with best practices, the department protects the city from potential litigation.
He said investigations should all be in one house. At the same time, the JCPD should relocate related criminal investigations such as kidnap and street gang investigations which are currently under the juvenile division. He also said he wants these units to work together.
“Even if some people disagree with certain steps,” Shea said, “everything will be in black and white.”
The ordinance lists requirements for a number of key positions and their ranking. On top is the director of public safety, who must have 10 years experience in the police or fire department or some other law enforcement agency, including five years in an administrator or supervisor role. These requirements can only be waived by a two thirds vote of the City Council.
Below public safety director comes the police chief, then operations, which includes the patrol division, investigations division, and support services bureau. The police chief oversees the medical bureau, gun permits, executive protection, and other similar functions.
The director can appoint an assistant director, who must also have 10 years experience. But if the director’s own experience is in the Police Department, then the assistant must come out of the Fire Department.
The ordinance retains the mayor’s right to appoint the chief of the police, who must have at least five years administrative or supervisory police experience.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.