Chief of Police Frank Papapietro came before the Mayor and Council Monday evening to address the current needs of the New Milford Police Department Headquarters.
"The current infrastructure is so taxed that it compromises the safety of our officers," Papapietro said.
Since the department was transferred from its Center Street location within the original Company No. 1 Firehouse in 1959, the footprint of the department's headquarters has not changed.
"We're an entirely different department than the one this space was originally designed for," Papapietro said.
According to Papapietro, the current location of police headquarters was designed to accomodate 15 officers in 1959. "We are at a current roster of 32, with a State recommendation that we have 38 officers based on our current workload and number of arrests."
Papapietro said that the deficiencies of the department's building structure became apparent during the 2007 nor'easter, but reached a crisis point during superstorm Sandy when the department was operating without electricity in the dark.
"During Sandy, we were making our way around headquarters with flashlights," Papapietro said. "We also had one non-violent arrest, but since he had no prior convictions, we were forced to let him go on his own recognizance because conditions within headquarters were so unsafe."
Because the building is so deficient, Papapietro credited the officers of his department for "thinking outside the box" during Sandy to see the town safely through that emergency without any calls being dropped, and no civilian or officer getting hurt.
One of Papapietro's many concerns is that headquarters is neither ADA (American with Disabilities Act) compliant, or Department of Corrections compliant.
"Police Headquarters is a public building and must be accessible by persons with physical disabilities," Papapietro said. The doorways are not wide enough for many with disabilities, and there are no accessible restrooms.
He said that this situation was highlighted when an arrestee confined to a wheelchair was brought in. The arrestee had to be transported through Borough Hall to access the elevator that would take him to the Detective Bureau located on the second floor.
"If a person with physical limitations needs to be interviewed by detectives, or discuss a confidential matter, the entire building would have to be unlocked to access the public elevator in Borough Hall to get to the second floor where the Detective Bureau is located."
Papapietro added that this lack of accessibility would also preclude the Borough from hiring a physically disabled civilian to work as a police employee, making the Borough vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit.
Also, Papapietro said that on the days that court is held, people line the corridor of Borough Hall waiting to meet with the prosecutor to plead their case.
"There have been instances when someone present for court has become agitated, putting Borough Hall employees at risk," he said. Also, prisoners being escorted into the courtroom pose a danger to Borough Hall personnel and represent a flight risk.
"The way it is currently configured, prisoners can be aided by friends waiting in the general court crowd to assist with an escape," Papapietro said.
"Likewise, the court staff needs to be able to enter and exit the courtroom without fear of confrontation by an angry defendant."
Papapietro recounted a situation where the municipal Judge was confronted after court by an angry defendant he had just imposed a sentence upon.
"We need to incorporate a level of safety and security for our personnel," he said. "Nobody wants to enter their workplace with the real fear that their safety may be compromised," Papapietro stressed.
In addition to general security, Papapietro is concerned with prisoner security. The State Dpt. of Corrections mandates that prisoners be separated by gender, sight and sound. New Milford's headquarters contains two adjoining detention cells that are not separated by sight and sound. Additionally, if there are more than two prisoners, or if there is one male and one female prisoner, only two same-sex prisoners can be detained in the cell room at one time. The overflow is either transported to another police department or handcuffed to the only other available space--the table where officers eat their lunch and dinner. (A table recycled from a fast-food restaurant that also doubles as a desk for officers to write reports.)
Papapietro said that after a recent arrest of a male and female prisoner, the male was placed in the detention cell and the female was handcuffed to the table where officers were eating their lunch.
"She had an undetermined rash on her skin, yet that was the only place we had to detain her, so the officers placed newspapers down on the table so her rash would not come in contact with their eating surface."
Headquarters has no separate holding facility for juveniles. New Jersey Administrative Code (10A:34-3.6) mandates that juveniles taken into short-term custody cannot be detained in a detention facility or a jail. They, too, are handcuffed to the lunch table.
The department has no conference rooms where victims of domestic violence can be interviewed in private.
"There is no separate room where these victims can maintain their dignity and be afforded privacy outside of the activity of headquarters and Borough Hall," Papapietro said.
"That goes for informants, as well," he added.
Headquarters also lacks a sallyport -- a secured entrance, such as a garage -- to escort prisoners into the cell room.
According to Papapietro, arrestees are escorted from the rear parking lot of Borough Hall into headquarters where yards away there is a playground and ball fields. "Kids are often running through the parking lot," Papapietro said. "They shouldn't have to see police escorting handcuffed prisoners into the back door of the police department as they're playing with their friends."
"Also, without a secured entrance there's an escape risk and a prisoner could run to the playground or ball field," he added.
Lacking adequate restroom facilities, female prisoners must be escorted to Borough Hall's facilities. Also, if the department hires any female officers, there are no bathroom or changing facilities to accommodate them. (At the time that New Milford employed female officers, there were no mandates regarding separate facilities.)
According to Papapietro, the locker room, which doubles as a briefing room, is not large enough to accommodate all of the lockers needed by police officers. Currently, there are lockers lining the wall of the second floor landing. There are also no shower facilities where officers can clean-up after a difficult call that may involve blood or chemicals, or during times of emergency when they are out in the elements and required to work around the clock.
"A briefing room should contain a phone and computers so that it can be used as a command center during times of emergencies, which we are seeing with increasing regularity," Papapietro said. "This would have been invaluable during Hurricane Irene, the October snowstorm and Sandy."
Aside from the infrastructure and the need to comply to code, there is also the issue of space, or lack thereof. According to Papapietro, there is no central location to house evidence. Evidence gathered in every case must be held in a secure location on premises until the case is adjudicated.
"Currently, evidence is scattered in various secured closets throughout headquarters," he said. "Ideally, all evidence should be centrally located in one secure space monitored by surveillance cameras."
Similarly, confidential and classified documents have no centralized location. They, too, are scattered in locked cabinets in various rooms throughout headquarters.
"The Borough has to start paying attention to its emergency services infrastructure," Papapietro said. "We need to create a professional work environment that is safe, secure and functional."
Based on Papapietro's report, the Mayor and Council appointed a committee to meet with the architect who is currently working with the Fire Department in drawing up designs for their buildings. The committee consists of Papapietro, Councilmen Dominic Colucci and Michael Putrino, and Mayor Ann Subrizi.
Papapietro stressed that the New Milford Police Department is a 21st Century department striving to perform up to those standards. "We need our space to help us not only meet those standards, but to exceed them."