Law and Disorder: Edison’s Troubled Police Force

(This award-winning two-part series in The Star-Ledger led the state Attorney General’s Office to set up new protocols and to increase monitoring of the Edison Police Department’s internal affairs unit. It also prompted legislation, which ultimately did not reach the governor’s desk, to mandate a state takeover of the internal affairs unit.)

PART 1: A police department’s march to self-destruction

(Dec. 9, 2012) (PDF)

From the outside, nothing betrays the image of normalcy. Rows of gleaming squad cars line a gated lot. Flags snap at attention near the front door. Uniformed officers come and go, shift after shift.

But behind the facade, the officers of the Edison Police Department pursue two missions: fighting crime and tearing each other apart. And it’s not always clear which comes first.

Office politics have become a black art: of backstabbing and dirty tricks, of spying on comrades and of trolling for dirt on civic officials and their relatives. Lawsuits have become a weapon and a way of life.

Edison police car
Photo by Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger

A Star-Ledger investigation encompassing dozens of interviews and thousands of pages of documents — including legal papers, interoffice memos and internal affairs files — reveals an agency in the grip of a grinding civil war that has dragged on for more than three years, shattering morale, eroding the department’s integrity and saddling taxpayers with millions of dollars in legal fees and settlements.

“Because of what’s been going on, it’s hard for the men to function,” said John Vaticano, a sergeant who retired in disgust last December. “It’s time for people to realize what’s going on in this town. It’s out of control. It’s totally out of control.”

Among The Star-Ledger’s findings:

• The internal affairs division conducted investigations far outside the boundaries permitted by state guidelines, gathering intelligence and building dossiers on officers’ relatives and other civilians, including Mayor Antonia Ricigliano and her top adviser.

The off-the-grid probes represent an “intolerable” breach of public trust and demonstrate an urgent need for outside monitoring, said Wayne Fisher, who wrote the state’s IA guidelines when he served as deputy director of the Division of Criminal Justice.

“Action must be taken,” Fisher said.

• At least 15 officers and supervisors — nearly 10 percent of the force — have filed suit against the chief, the mayor, the township or all three, claiming age discrimination, retaliation, harassment or political influence over promotions and demotions. All but two of the suits have been filed in the past three years.

Legal fees associated with those cases already have surpassed $1.6 million and continue to mount, burdening residents in Edison and hundreds of other New Jersey communities that take part in a taxpayer-funded insurance pool.

Wayne Mascola, vice president of the township council, expressed disgust at the number of officers filing suit, calling it “an abuse of the system.”

“They know how to play the game through the legal system,” Mascola said. “They’re like a bunch of little kids. They always want it their way. ‘This guy got it. I gotta get it, too.’ They want it all.”

• Officers and commanders alike describe an atmosphere of treachery and intimidation. Chief Thomas Bryan, for one, contends disgruntled subordinates arranged for a “crack whore” to call his home and speak to his wife and children in a failed bid to sow turmoil and thwart his reform efforts.

• Paid stress leaves, once typically associated with the aftermath of violent or dangerous duty calls, have spiked with the departmental drama over the past two years. In the most high-profile case, Deputy Chief Mel Vaticano, the brother of retired Sgt. John Vaticano, was out for eight months on a stress-related medical leave after mounting an unsuccessful campaign to have Bryan arrested. Mel Vaticano makes $182,500, or $7,500 more than Gov. Chris Christie.

Former Councilwoman Melissa Perilstein, an advocate for reform of the police department, called stress leaves related to the internal turmoil an “unconscionable” waste of tax dollars. The Star-Ledger found the township has paid at least $300,000 in salary to officers too stressed to work in 2011 and 2012.

The upheaval rages on even as the department continues to struggle with inappropriate or illegal behavior by officers, undermining efforts to mend a reputation tattered by high-profile crimes, ranging from theft and assault to bank robbery and rape.

In the past four years alone, six officers were criminally charged or abruptly retired or resigned while under investigation, contributing to a record of misconduct that far outstrips departments of similar size across New Jersey.

Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan, the county’s chief law enforcement officer, said the 168-member force, by and large, “does its job and enforces the law.” But given the department’s checkered history and ongoing strife, he said, it warrants continued scrutiny.

“Real or perceived, the problems reported in Edison that affect the police department should not and cannot be tolerated,” Kaplan said. “Anything that affects the public trust is an impediment to that department being able to do its job.” (More)

PART 2: Betraying the Badge: The Edison Police Department’s astonishing record of misconduct 

(Dec. 10, 2012) (PDF)

From her room in a low-budget motel on Route 1, a prostitute working as an informant for the Woodbridge Police Department reached out to her handler with an urgent tip.

A client had contacted her. He was flush with cocaine — “white,” he called it — and he wanted to trade some of it for sex, she told the handler.

Woodbridge detectives, deep into an investigation of drug-trafficking at hotels along the highway, moved into position and waited.

On that Saturday morning in 2010, the man the prostitute identified as her client, Thomas Wall, was inaugurated into one of New Jersey’s more infamous brotherhoods: Edison police officers who have betrayed the badge.

Thomas Wall
Thomas Wall (Photo by Patti Sapone)

Wall — who would later fail a department-ordered drug test, documents show — is one of at least 30 Edison officers who were fired or who abruptly resigned amid allegations of inappropriate or illegal behavior over the past two decades. That figure, confirmed by Chief Thomas Bryan, includes six officers removed from the force or prosecuted in the past four years alone.

It is an astonishing record of misconduct unmatched by any department of equivalent size in New Jersey, a Star-Ledger review has found. Edison — the state’s fifth-largest municipality, with a population of about 100,000 — has 168 officers, down from a high of 215 eight years ago.

In neighboring Woodbridge, which has a slightly larger force and about 400 fewer residents, just seven officers have run afoul of the law or committed rules violations serious enough to warrant termination in the past 20 years, a township spokesman confirmed. Two of the seven were later reinstated.

And in Toms River, with 150 officers and 91,000 residents, not a single officer has been charged or removed for cause in the same time period, longtime Police Chief Michael Mastronardy said.

Asked if any officers had been allowed to quietly retire in lieu of criminal or administrative action, Mastronardy responded: “We don’t negotiate on behavior. If you do something, you get charged.”

The misconduct in Edison is even more stark when compared with New Jersey’s biggest law enforcement agency, the State Police.

With about 2,800 enlisted personnel, the organization is nearly 17 times larger than Edison’s force, yet in the past two decades, just 72 troopers have been forced out, said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office. Thirty-eight were terminated outright. The remaining 34 retired or resigned while under investigation or after disciplinary charges had been filed, Loriquet said.

The Edison Police Department’s defenders say most officers are dedicated and honest. They say, too, the force’s darkest days are well in the past, that a long-standing tolerance for bad behavior has been largely snuffed out.

But the bleak fact remains that in Edison, police officers continue to find trouble at a far greater clip than their counterparts across the state.

“I wish I had the answer,” said Councilman Wayne Mascola, who has pushed for greater accountability on the force. “Why do the Mets get someone — maybe a Hall of Famer — and he goes down the tubes?

“Maybe it’s the Edison uniform.”

At the same time, the department is contending with multiple allegations of police brutality and a related attack on the integrity of the internal affairs unit by plaintiffs’ lawyers, who say investigators skew their findings to benefit accused officers.

The FBI is investigating one of the brutality cases as a civil rights violation and has seized records and other evidence, including officers’ clothing and video footage from squad cars, according to court records and law enforcement officials familiar with the probe.

“They’re really not trying to stop this stuff,” said Thomas Mallon, a Freehold lawyer who has filed two suits alleging excessive force.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” Mallon said, “and it will keep happening unless they reform their internal affairs procedures, because they’ve got some serious problems with guys who are heavy-handed and act like thugs.” (More)

ADDITIONAL COVERAGE

➽ Edison settles ‘wagon wheel of death’ police lawsuit for $200K (Aug. 22, 2015)

 FBI lab lost hair sample in Edison police firebomb case; second hair not from accused officer (March 1, 2015)

 Paid to stay home for 15 months and counting: Edison officer’s disciplinary case postponed (Jan. 23, 2015)

➽ A year after suspensions, two Edison police officers still collecting salaries of $120K, $89K (Dec. 2, 2014)

➽ Complaint filed against Edison police chief for bicycle shopping while on duty and in uniform (Nov. 1, 2014)

 Edison moves to fire two cops over allegations of sexual misconduct, racist text messages (May 25, 2014)

➽ Edison officer enlisted colleagues in cop-on-cop retaliation scheme, authorities say (April 1, 2014)

➽ Edison police officer abandoned patrol to go home during Super Bowl, complaint says (Feb. 6, 2014)

➽ In Edison P.D. eavesdropping probe, prosecutor seizes hard drives from police chief, other cops (Dec. 31, 2013)

➽ Listening devices in Edison police headquarters secretly recorded officers, attorneys, civilians (Dec. 15, 2013)

➽ New Edison deputy police chief, out on stress leave for six months, accepted freebies, sources say (Nov. 13, 2013)

➽ Lame-duck mayor in Edison draws fire for police promotions, $1M legal settlement (Nov. 13, 2013) 

➽ Dirty tricks and the ‘wagon wheel of death’; Edison cops sue chief, allege political retaliation (Oct. 26, 2013) 

➽ Edison cop charged with propositioning woman for sex after responding to 911 call (Oct. 10, 2013)

➽ Edison cop who allegedly torched captain’s home arrested again, faces 17 new charges (Sept. 12, 2013)

➽ Edison cop accused of drinking on duty files for retirement, still faces drunken driving charge (July 14, 2013)

➽ Edison PBA president calls department ‘broken,’ pleads for outside intervention (June 12, 2013)

 In Edison, a bid to strip politics from policing; mayor, chief find common ground on reforms (June 9, 2013) 

➽ Edison police chief seeks outside monitor, citing mayor’s ‘political interference’ (June 5, 2013)

➽ Buzzed on the beat: Edison cop accused of drinking, attending party while on duty (June 4, 2013)

➽ Possible motive emerges in Edison cop’s alleged arson attack on captain’s home (June 2, 2013)

➽ Edison cop charged with attempted murder in firebomb attack on supervisor’s home (May 23, 2013)

➽ N.J. Assembly approves bill pushing state takeover of Edison police internal affairs (March 21, 2013)

➽ Edison deputy police chief’s claim of retaliation tossed by appeals court (Feb. 22, 2013) 

➽ Attorney General’s Office steps up oversight of Edison Police Department’s internal affairs unit (Feb. 8, 2013)

➽ Former Edison police officer accused of racism landed TSA job at Newark airport (Dec. 23, 2012)

➽ Edison police captain files complaint, citing threats and harassment (Dec. 22, 2012)

➽ Edison police turmoil continues, as deputy chief files 4 complaints against chief (Dec. 12, 2012)

 

 

 


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