Former chief tries to sell idea of centralized police force

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:52

SUSSEX COUNTY — A plan that would combine all of Sussex County's towns into one centralized police force has been proposed by one retired police chief—but even he concedes it would be a difficult sell. Paul W. Dittmar, who spent 34 years (1957-1991) as a member of the Leonia police department, including the last 12 as its chief, feels that as society has grown more sophisticated, so have criminals. Therefore, he argues, more will be needed to combat crime, especially in the post-9/11 world. "The towns with police departments are very efficient," said Dittmar, a Vernon resident who first made his proposal public with a letter in The Advertiser News' May 5 edition. "Their training is superb and their leadership is excellent. But we are now living in a new era, post 9/11. Our police officers do their best to curtail their activities, but the time has come for the realization that Sussex County can no longer live in the past." Already local public safety officials are questioning both the need for a unified police force and its cost. Franklin Chief of Police Joseph Kistle said the cost involved would be a large deterrent. "It could work, but I believe it would be an added expense," said Kistle. "All those things—special weapons teams, mounted patrols, aerial patrols and other special forces—would add up to expenses that the taxpayers in this county could not afford. "I think this rotates on the towns that don't have local police," Kistle added. "They already rely on county and state police. Now is that fair for municipalities that do have police departments to bear the burden of tax expenses for municipalities that do not? If it was such a benefit, then why doesn't every county in the state have a county police department?" Dittmar, who is now a private investigator, has said that in an ideal situation, all of Sussex County would be under the jurisdiction of one command center located in the middle of the county, presumably Lafayette. In turn, the county would be divided into four precincts, with a substation in each one. In the event of emergencies, Dittmar said, specially trained officers could be dispatched to different areas, and then "modernization" of law enforcement equipment would follow, bringing in things such as a helicopter, motorcycles, a professional S.W.A.T. team and even a scuba team and mounted patrols. Dittmar, however, concedes that "Plan A" would be "doomed from the beginning," due to the concepts of home rule, where elected officials would not look kindly upon the loss of their municipal police services. "But there is a Plan B," said Dittmar, who said he has sent his proposal to the county freeholders. Plan B would consist of letting the towns without local police—Montague, Sussex Borough, Wantage, Lafayette, Frankford, Branchville, Hampton, Fredon, Walpack and Sandyston—band together for a force of their own, eventually hoping that the remaining towns with local police would join in. Sussex Borough, the county's smallest town, is one of those served by state police, who, by way of a state charter requirement, are obligated to fill the roles a local force would. With state police provided through state tax dollars, the borough says it is not taxed additionally. "The town does not pay any extra," said borough clerk Vito Gadaleta. "We are very satisfied with the services we receive from the state police. But they are limited …and so the mayor and council are interested in additional services from a neighboring police department." Sussex Borough, however, recently began its own local chapter of the Guardian Angels, the patrolling, anti-crime unit founded by WABC-AM talk show host Curtis Sliwa. And the results, both Gadaleta and councilman James Ezzo say, have been positive. "We provide a comfort level," said Ezzo, the Sussex chapter leader who is not familiar with Dittmar's concept. "We communicate with the people and we get to know them. Small towns are reaching out for Curtis and the group to do whatever they can." One of the biggest factors for towns with local police—including Franklin, Hamburg, Ogdensburg and Sparta—is the small town role of familiarity, the process whereby town residents and police officers get to know each other, something that is widely acknowledged to be of benefit to both parties. "Not many people want to give up that local control and safety," said county freeholder chairman Glen Vetrano. "There has to be some sort of public trust involved." When reminded of this, Dittmar said that element wouldn't necessarily have to change much under his proposal. "When we developed this plan (B), there are no police here," said Dittmar. "And all these Vernon cops and other cops, we're not going to get rid of them. We're just going to shuffle them up. Everything is going to stay the same, except we're just going to get a few new boundaries. They do know the town. But unfortunately, that's all they know is the town." Can a concept such as Dittmar's ever work? "A hundred percent," responded Dittmar in regard to Plan B. "It should be a shoe-in. And what are the chances of the other towns falling into place? I think that's a positive thing." When informed of Dittmar's proposal, others in law enforcement, however, remain doubtful. "I have a law enforcement background and I've seen proposals for a countywide police force over the years," commented Byram mayor Eskil "Skip" Danielson, who is also the county's emergency management director. "And I really find that it is unrealistic." Danielson, who founded the Byram police force in April 1971 and served for 22 years as the town's chief of police, noted that other agencies such as state park police and the county sheriff's office make Dittmar's plan unnecessary. "I find that with all of the coverage we do have, to reach for a countywide force would be overkill," Danielson concluded. "And I can tell you that helicopters can be very expensive to run. From the political side, I don't see it becoming a reality. Towns without local police are not looking to give up their state police coverage."