TOMS RIVER – Around 70 residents came out in support of the police denouncing Mayor Dan Rodrick’s reorganization of the township police department on Tuesday afternoon.
This was just the first of two rallies, at the corner of Washington and Robbins streets. The second will be held on Wednesday right before the Township Council meeting when the change in police staffing is expected.
There are two police captains who are retiring. Rodrick’s plan is not to refill those positions, and use the money to fund the staff for the round-the-clock ambulance with eight new EMS staff.
Laura Dentroux is a seventh-generation resident of Toms River. She and her son were wearing the I Support TRPD T-shirts that were being distributed for the occasion. “This is really important to Mason because the police department did something wonderful for him when he was little. He wrote a letter to Santa Claus when he was little and all he wanted to be is a Toms River police officer and they allowed him to join them for a day.”
Dentroux was a Class I police officer in Lakehurst and her husband is a police officer in Freehold Township. “Jillian Messina who was just let go (as public information officer of the township police department) helped make that possible and she is wonderful. This is very sad. I don’t think the public really knows how much work she did working to get grants and that to me is irreplaceable.”
“She is making your money that you are spending back tenfold with these grants. The police department obviously hits home for me. I am a real estate broker in town so everything that happened with the CO (certificate of occupancy permits being eliminated). I felt the CO was important for the safety of residents.”
The resident added, “I think instead of deleting the whole thing and getting rid of everybody’s jobs what would have been the smarter action to take is to sit down and really look at what was actually needed. More of a discussion needs to be had before you just say this is what we are doing and you can’t do anything about it.”
Her neighbor Jerry Nappi also came out for the rally and had some pointed words for the mayor. “He lied through his teeth. He said he’d resign from his school job which he didn’t. He dropped the medical benefits from the school because he had to pay for those and he took the township’s medical plan. He is getting paid to do two full time jobs. You took my vote and now you lied to me. The most important thing I have is my vote. He (Rodrick) started a racist campaign and I called him a racist because he was pitting the people against each other.”
Last week, the mayor sent a letter to Toms River residents about his plan to hire community service officers and eliminate positions in the police department.
Police Chief Mitchell Little responded to Rodrick’s claims about staffing and efforts to increase EMTs. His response was posted to the police department’s Facebook page. That post was later removed.
Most township residents received Rodrick’s letter on January 26. It was sent in response to backlash against his change for the January 31 council meeting to a Zoom only format. The change from a live to virtual meeting was announced on January 24 by Council President Craig Coleman. That move was strongly opposed by Councilmen David Ciccozzi and James Quinlisk, who issued a letter on January 26 urging Coleman to instead hold the meeting in person at a larger venue.
Rodrick’s letter defended his plan to cut two captains’ positions after they retire stating they were costing the township around $700,000 in salaries and benefits.
The mayor wrote that his plan was to use that money to hire eight community service officers to enhance Toms River’s emergency medical services and to improve the time for responses.
“By not backfilling these desk jobs, the township will have the money it needs to put more boots on the ground. Some of the Department’s top brass are upset that we will not be backfilling these retirements in management – because their colleagues will not be getting a promotion. Their management union is fighting our plan to fix this emergency response crisis,” Rodrick’s letter states.
He also wrote that, “They are purposefully mischaracterizing this as taking cops off the street. Nothing could be further from the truth. We added seven new cops my first week in office.”
Rodrick said Toms River is facing a $3.5 million budget shortfall that he blamed on the prior administration. “Still, we need more emergency medical responders. It’s a matter of life and death. The prior mayor and chief of police had four years to fix this crisis, but they did not. We are fixing it.”
Little’s letter which was also distributed to news agencies, refuted Rodrick’s claims.
“As Chief of Police, it is my duty to ensure that accurate information is disseminated so everyone in the community can make informed decisions about important matters that impact the safety and well-being of you and your family. Let me assure you that our PBA Police Officer Union, the FOP Supervisor’s Union and the Chief’s Office stand united with the increase in personnel in our EMT program,” his letter stated.
The letter went on to say, “the overall safety of our residents is our number one priority and we are proud of our average response time of 9.6 minutes by our EMTs in a community spanning 44 square miles.” He also noted that the police department had been seeking to hire more EMTs for some time.
“Unfortunately, even with extensive recruiting efforts, the pool of EMT applicants has been almost non-existent for some time, as other agencies are also in need of emergency medical personnel. Additionally, police officers outfitted with first aid equipment and defibrillators are also dispatched to emergency medical calls and often first on the scene to start emergency treatment in anticipation of the EMTs’ arrival,” Little wrote.
According to the chief, both police unions along with his office “stand united in opposition to the elimination of two captain positions to fund the EMT program. I have asked the mayor for an opportunity to discuss his concerns in relation to the potential unintended consequences of his decision to implement these cuts to our command staff. I believe there is a middle ground that is mutually beneficial to all involved, the police department, the governing body, and most of all, the members of the community.”
Little said the department has applied for a grant through the NJ Division of Community Affairs “to enter into a shared services agreement with another municipality to join forces and defray the cost. This is only one possibility. We are open to exploring others, but there is no rush to require hasty decisions that will have far-reaching implications.”
Little said the captains were, “critical to the effective and efficient operation of the police department,” he said. “They are my executive staff and each command entire bureaus totaling 335 employees (not 112) such as, sworn officers, Class 1, 2 and 3 Special Law Enforcement Officers (SLEO), as well as all civilian support personnel. In the past, the police department had a Chief, two Deputy Chiefs and four Captains.”
Currently, the department has a Chief and three Bureau Commanders, a reduction of four command positions. Chief Little noted a 2021 efficiency study conducted by the Government Strategy Group, which stated the department “operates extremely ‘lean and efficient’ with no recommendations to reduce personnel.”
He also pointed out in the letter that the department has 162 officers which is the same number of officers it had two decades ago.
“The context of these numbers is significant, with the increase in calls for service then from 43,885 to 65,000 per year now, and a current population close to 100,000 residents, of which, U.S. Census data does not count motels or the burgeoning summer tourist population,” Chief Little wrote.
He added that the seven officers Rodrick said he approved hiring weren’t patrol officers, but seasonal, part-time Class 1 SLEO officers, “who patrol parks, the beach area and our municipal jail. These SLEO officers are not authorized to carry weapons and have no arrest powers.”
The chief said the seven SLEO officers were hired as replacements for “the 15 SLEO officers lost last year due to them pursuing other full-time law enforcement employment. In reality, the police department is still short eight Class 1 Officers from last year with the possibility of losing two full-time sworn police officers through attrition this year, dropping the total end strength of full-time sworn officers from 162 to 158.”
A list of salaries and benefit costs were included on the second page of Rodrick’s two-page letter, characterizing the cost as “out of control” with nine of the management staff receiving more than $300,000 in salary and benefits annually.
One of the causalities of Rodrick’s police department restructure was the layoff of Jillian Messina who had served as the department’s public information officer for seven years. Her job was eliminated when it was merged with the public information officer (PIO) position. The Township PIO position also saw a change when Art Gallagher was terminated from the job and Phil Stilton, the owner of Shore News Network was hired by the mayor on January 1 at a salary of $89,000 a year.
Gallagher and Messina were not offered the joint Township/Police Department PIO position despite having worked for the municipality for several years.
Messina posted her farewell on social media on Monday. “Thank you for the most incredible seven years! We’ve laughed together, we’ve cried together, we’ve even solved crimes together! We relied on each other, and we trusted each other.”
“Keeping you connected with our Toms River Police Department family was the best job I’ve ever had. I loved every second with you. Please continue to show lots of love to our officers and everyone who makes the Toms River Police Department the greatest police department ever! Signing off for now,” Messina added. She was present at the Tuesday afternoon’s rally.