HT Committee meets, is advised by counsel regarding police force policy

At the Hopewell Township Committee’s regular virtual meeting on Tuesday July 7, topics of discussion included road closures, the Committee’s authority over the police force, and an extension contract for the interim health officer.

The Pennington-Harbourton bridge over Jacobs Creek will be closed on or about Monday, July 6, 2020 for bridge repairs, said Mark Kataryniak, Township engineer. A detour will be posted directing motorists to use Bear Tavern Road, Pennington-Titusville Road, and Scotch Road. Mercer County anticipates construction will take approximately 60 calendar days to complete, weather permitting. 

The Township was served with a cross-claim last week in a suit in which affordable housing developers have sued ELSA to access public sewer service. ELSA has now filed a cross- claim against the Township in that action, “alleging that the Township has the obligation to provide sewer service to the affordable housing developers,” said Steve Goodell, Township attorney.

Goodell was also asked by Committee member Courtney Peters-Manning to explain: What are the Township Committee’s powers over the police force and the process for police discipline? Who creates the policies of the police force and how can they be changed?

Goodell explained that the governing body, in this case the Township Committee, has the power to determine whether it will have a police department — for example Hopewell Borough does not have its own police department and has shared police services with Hopewell Township. If a municipality has a police department, there are state statutes governing the process and procedures. 

“In every police department there is a police function and a civilian function,” Goodell said, explaining that the civilian function is governed by a person or group of people defined by law as the “appropriate authority.” In Hopewell, the Township Committee is the appropriate authority for the civilian function and is responsible for the overall performance of the police department, and can “adopt and promulgate rules and regulations for the governance of the police department and the discipline” of its members. “That’s not to say you have carte blanche,” cautioned Goodell. “The rules and regulations of police are guided by AG guidelines that include the best practices.

The policing function, however, comprises the day to day operations of the police department including enforcing discipline and operations of the police department. The police department function in Hopewell Township is governed not by the Township Committee, but by the Chief of Police.

When it comes to discipline, Goodell explained that there is a very strict set of laws in the Township ordinance that is based on requirements of State law including that disciplinary matters are confidential, and the AG has specific directives about what can and cannot be said.

The Committee, sitting as the “appropriate authority,” has the final say for determining only “major” discipline as defined by law, which results in five days suspension or more. 

In summary, the Committee has the authority to make initial determinations and to give broad oversight, but is constrained by AG guidelines. Meanwhile, the chief has absolute law enforcement authority that civilians cannot get involved in, said Goodell.

“It is important to remember that throughout this process we are guided by AG guidelines and our own personnel policies about what we can share, which is essentially nothing,” said Ellen Horn, another attorney who is consulting the Township. “These are the requirements — so while we may want to respond, we are constrained and must abide by them.”

During updates, Committee member Julie Blake reminded people to wear masks even outdoors. “Please pass single-file when you pass people and wear masks,” urged Blake and said she wore her mask 60 feet behind and 60 feet in front of passing a person when she rode her bike.

Kuchinski echoed Blake’s sentiments about COVID-19 precautions and spoke about the Township’s ongoing work and support of local businesses helping them reopen. He also encouraged younger members of the community “to take care to protect themselves and loved ones and family.” 

Census response rate in Hopewell Township is 77% rate, said Committee member Michael Ruger, who encouraged everyone to respond to the census.

The Hopewell Township Committee authorized an emergency appropriation to increase a shared service agreement with Montgomery Township for health officer services and extended appointment of Stephanie Carey as interim health officer, as the Township actively searches for a permanent replacement for that position in the Township.

The next Committee meeting will be held on July 20, 2020 at 7pm.

If you rely on MercerMe for your local news, please support us.

To keep the news coming, we rely on support from subscribers and advertising partners. Hyperlocal, independent, and digital — MercerMe has been providing Hopewell Valley its news since 2013. Subscribe today.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.