Rank and file officers in the Lawrence Township Police Department have filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the township and police Chief Brian Caloiaro that paints a picture of dissent, infighting and low morale within the department.
The lawsuit alleges that department brass instituted ticket quotas, which are illegal in New Jersey, in order to make up for declining court revenues. The action also states that the township devised a scheme to make money off of impounding cars and to require that vehicles be impounded whenever possible.
Township manager Kevin Nerwinski, in a post on his blog
(lawrencetownshipnjmanagerkpn.blogspot.com) said the township has done nothing illegal and that department officials were just trying to get the officers to do their jobs. He said that some of the officers were writing significantly less tickets because they were unhappy with their job situation.
“The Township will defend this civil action because in my opinion it is without merit,” he said in his post on Oct. 9, which he said would be the only comment he would make regarding the lawsuit. He did not respond to a subsequent email request on Oct. 11 by The Gazette to be interviewed regarding the situation.
The township is also in the midst of negotiating a new contract with the police, and Nerwinski suggested that officers are displeased with the deal the township is offering.
The complaint mentions a number of instances where patrol officers are at odds with superiors as a result of the alleged ticket quotas.
There are claims that some of the officers were retaliated against for not writing enough tickets, including official disciplinary action, as well as being subjected to ridicule for not meeting the supposed quotas.
The lawsuit was filed on Oct. 7 by the Law Offices of Sciarra & Catrambone on behalf of Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 119, Lt. Joseph Amodio, Sgt. Scott Stein, Det. Andrew Lee and officers Marc Caponi, Andres Mejia and Hector Nieves.
A complication arose about two weeks after the lawsuit was filed, when members of the police union came together to disavow the lawsuit.
According to an article in the Trentonian newspaper on Oct. 25, rank-and-file members of the union voted “no confidence to the lawsuit of six selfish individuals.” The article quotes an anonymous source from within PBA Local 119.
An email to the newspaper stated, “We requested that the PBA name is taken off the lawsuit immediately. We highly oppose this lawsuit and do not believe that our police chief has done anything wrong. This lawsuit was done without our knowledge and agreement.”
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The PBA’s action is indicative of the continuing problems within the department. Sources have told The Gazette that the officers who filed the lawsuit are perceived by other officers to be malcontents who don’t want to do their jobs.
Many of the issues cited in the lawsuit appear to be rooted in a years-long low-morale situation that resulted in some officers writing less tickets. Apparently some officers were unhappy with the way the department was being run by then-Chief Mark Ubry, who retired last year. Caloiaro was named his successor last October.
Nerwinski wrote in his post that he first learned about the problem when he was hired in 2017.
“I honestly had no idea about what was really going on at the police department,” Nerwinski said. “It didn’t compute to me that a police officer would simply stop performing his/her duty because they objected to Chief Mark Ubry’s style and actions as their chief at that time.”
He also states: “How do you supervise or manage police officers that come to work each day, sit in their patrol car and do no traffic enforcement while cars speed by, people unsafely hold cell phones or drivers drive drunk?”
According to Nerwinski, if the department mentions a lack of productivity, it results in a grievance by the officers complaining that they are being forced to stop vehicles and to meet a quota.
He also said that officers deemed not to be doing their jobs can’t be suspended or fired because they are protected by Civil Service and their union. “This concerned me so much here that I contacted the N.J. Attorney General’s office several weeks ago to discuss what can be done about getting our officers back doing their job,” he said.
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To bolster its claims, the lawsuit cites a 2018 report by a N.J. Supreme Court committee that was constituted to look into concerns that “municipalities are increasingly relying on fines from tickets as a source of significant revenue, calling into question the overall fairness of such practices.”
The report quotes Chief Justice Stuart Rabner as saying, “It is the Court’s responsibility, in every case, to ensure that justice is carried out without regard to any outside pressures. The imposition of punishment should in no way be linked to a town’s need for revenue.”
The lawsuit alleges that despite the findings of the Supreme Court report, “Lawrence Township continued its practice of using the municipal court system as a revenue generator” to fill the township’s coffers.
Numbers cited in the suit show a 28 percent decrease in gross revenue generated by the municipal court between 2017 and last year. In 2017, the court’s gross revenue was $1.45 million and the net revenue was $691,250. In 2018, gross revenue was $1.04 million and net revenue was $501,187. As of May this year, gross revenue was $513,753.00 and net revenue was $226,747.
The suit states that the officers and police union “have been retaliated against for trying to stop an illegal ticket quota system used to fund the operations of Lawrence Township at the expense of motorists traveling through Lawrence Township.”
According to the lawsuit, the Lawrence Township Council held a budget meeting last Feb. 19 at which court revenues were discussed. During the meeting, Municipal Court Judge Lewis Korngut reportedly said he believed the decrease in court revenue in 2018 was an “aberrational year,” and the court revenues were on an “upswing” back to 2017 levels.
During the same meeting, Chief Caloiaro reportedly said that “the low productivity of the Department was due to decreased morale, but that he would address it.”
In his blog post, Nerwinski challenged the assertions made in the lawsuit regarding the budget session. “This is not about revenue to get our grubby hands on,” he said. “It’s about being able to craft a responsible budget. One that is accurate. You can’t do that if you don’t discuss and determine and forecast what revenues will be realized in the coming budget year.”
Nerwinski said that the proper context of Judge Korngut’s comment “would be that the police officers stopped active traffic enforcement during Chief Mark Ubry’s time, because they were displeased with him and the environment he had created.”
The plaintiffs complain that the ticketing requirements eliminate their police discretion—a concept that is widely recognized as being essential in law enforcement.
Discretion is the power or right of an officer decide or act according to his or her their judgment when dealing with a potential violator. For example, an officer can decide whether or not to pull over a vehicle, or when to write a ticket or just let someone off with a warning.
“Defendants employ a scheme to take away police officer discretion and require officers to write tickets in situations where officers may extend warnings in other circumstances,” states the lawsuit.
It also claims that Chief Caloiaro’s response to the decreased revenue, “was to order his department to write more tickets. Defendant Chief Caloiaro further had a listing and ranking of the officers posted in the police department including the number of tickets that each officer issued as a way to shame officers into writing additional tickets.”
The suit also claims that Lt. Joseph Caloiaro, who is Chief Caloiaro’s brother, gave a speech to officers on on March 9, 2019 with the purpose of getting more tickets written.
“He specifically stated, ‘Not every stop is a catch and release,’ states the suit. “During the speech, Lt. Caloiaro specifically stated that ‘revenue is down and that they needed to address that immediately.’ The lieutenant said that the municipal court judge stated that, “the court is busy and needs to stay that way.’”
The suit also says that during the March 9 briefing, the lieutenant told the sergeants that they needed to motivate the officers to write more tickets. “He emphasized to the sergeants that they were allowed to motivate the officers whichever way they needed to in order to write more tickets and increase revenue in the department.”
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The lawsuit also claims that the department requires officers to “issue tickets and impound vehicles whenever possible.”
It claims that the township has “systematically developed a system to syphon as much money as possible from motorists by demanding cars be impounded by officers.”
These cars are then towed to a holding facility owned by the township, and motorists are required to pay a $300 fee to the town (plus towing fees), in order to recover their cars. The fee must be paid regardless of whether the motorist is found to be guilty.
Regarding the impound allegations, Nerwinski responded, “Well that’s true to a degree.”
“When a police officer stops a motor vehicle and the vehicle is not registered or the registration is suspended, the police officer is required to impound the vehicle. There is no discretion,” Nerwinski wrote in his post. “Not surprisingly, impound revenue is down dramatically, because—wait for it—there are dramatically less motor vehicle stops.”
According to Nerwinski, several years ago, Chief Ubry created a small impound yard behind the police department. “This would keep the impounded vehicles on police grounds, make an easier process for retrieval from the owner and create revenue for the municipality instead of privately owned storage lots.”