Published: December 12, 2008
THE Palisades Interstate Parkway is a 42-mile stretch of road that runs alongside the cliffs bordering the Hudson River, between the George Washington Bridge and Bear Mountain. In New York, the road is patrolled by the New York State Police, but in New Jersey, the highway is not patrolled by the state or county police but by the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police Department, a small agency of 24 employees created in about 1910.
The parkway police patrol not just the highway but also the 2,500 acres of Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey. The agency even has its own court system to handle fines and penalties. But now there is a bill pending in the State Legislature that would disband the department and have its duties taken over by the Bergen County Police Department.
Democratic Assemblyman Gordon M. Johnson, a former Englewood police sergeant, Bergen County undersheriff and one of the bill’s sponsors, said the measure could save the state $1 million to $2 million, as parkway buildings are shut, the parkway commission’s court system is closed and the number of workers needed to handle the job is reduced. Mr. Johnson said he believed the 93-member Bergen County Police Department could patrol the parkway with just 15 officers, and their cost would be covered by having Bergen County’s courts, and not the parkway commission’s court, receive the revenues generated by parkway fines. That figure amounted to $1.6 million last year, according to the parkway police.
“We have a billion-dollar deficit in the 2008 budget, and this will save them $2.1 million,” Mr. Johnson said. “That’s not much, but it’s something.”
The matter was brought up on Monday at an Assembly committee meeting. No vote was taken, and the discussion is to continue in January.
While the cost savings are attractive, Mr. Johnson said the issue fell into his radar after he received eight or nine complaints from defense lawyers who contended their clients were targets of aggressive enforcement by the parkway police.
“That’s what made me look at them,” Mr. Johnson said.
He spoke to the parkway police, he said, and was told the complaints were investigated and deemed unfounded.
The number of motor vehicle summonses issued by the parkway police has increased to nearly 20,000 a year over the last several years from 7,388 in 2003, the parkway police said. The number of arrests have also increased to nearly 621 last year, from 60 in 2003, the police said. Among those arrested in recent years was Garry McCarthy, the Newark police director who got into an altercation with the parkway police in February 2005 after they ticketed one of his daughters at a highway rest stop. Mr. McCarthy, who was then deputy commissioner of operations for the New York City Police Department, was arrested briefly and fined $200 for obstruction of traffic.
In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and Garden State Equality called for an investigation into reports that the parkway police were targeting gay men for lewd conduct arrests in the park. Almost 90 people had been arrested for lewd conduct the previous year. Last year, that figure was five.
“There were clearly problems involving abuse of power and targeting gay men, and it took a push from us and a stinging rebuke from a New Jersey appellate court before things started to change,” said Edward Barocas, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
James F. Hall, the executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, said that after the complaints, videocameras were installed on all of the department’s police cars in an effort to make the process more transparent.
“Clearly, we will take enforcement actions against activities, whether it’s speeding, lewd activity or whatever,” he said. “But it’s never been targeted at any group nor have we had any real assertion that it was.”
Mr. Hall questioned how Bergen County could save money if it has to hire 15 more officers at the county’s pay scale, which is much higher than what his officers are paid. The base pay for the parkway police is $49,000 and tops out at $71,000 after about a decade, the parkway police said. The Bergen County police are paid $17,000 initially but salaries rise to more than $90,000 after five years and topped out last year at $109,000, according to Bergen County officials.
“At some point a few years ago, we had engaged in discussions for them to provide service,” Mr. Hall said, “and the cost for them to deliver that service was more than for us to do it because their police pay is so much higher than ours.”
Bergen County officials say they welcome cost-cutting mergers. Bergen, the state’s most populous county, has 70 municipalities, each with its own police department. Even Ho-Ho-Kus, with a population of 4,000, has its own force. But attempts to merge are always met with opposition and cries of home rule, said County Executive Dennis McNerney.
“We found a niche here with the parkway police,” Mr. McNerney said. “This could start the ball rolling.”