Spotswood delays hiring of new officer; residents concerned about safety

SPOTSWOOD–With a 3-2 vote, the Borough Council tabled an ordinance, which if adopted, would amend the municipal code to hire a new police officer.

Council President Larry Kraemer said the police department is currently composed of 24 officers, which includes Chief of Police Michael Zarro.

As of today, Kraemer said two officers are out on leave due to suffering serious injuries and a lot of overtime has accumulated.

The first officer’s injury, Zarro said, “is a residual effect from a near head-on collision with then-Patrolman John Pfeiffer, who is now a sergeant. He was hit almost head-on on Manalapan Road many years ago and he suffered a pretty serious shoulder injury. This is now his third surgery and now the anchor screws into the rotator cuff have pulled out. He is now going to have a possible fourth surgery.”

Zarro said to be a realist, Pfeiffer might not make it back from this injury because it’s recurring. He said Pfieffer will have a fourth surgery on the same affected area.

“[In October 2019] Patrolman Paul Silvestro was rear-ended on Helmetta Boulevard which forced the trunk of his vehicle into the rear of his front seat right behind his headrest. … Ptl. Silvestro has very serious injuries including a possible hip surgery, he has been out since that date,” Zarro said. “That has caused a double manpower overtime on two shifts that is compounded by the fact that Pfeiffer is sergeant, by contract the senior patrolman gets elevated to sergeant’s pay. This causes a third prong overtime issue, I call it a bleed because it is a complete bleed of manpower resources for the police department.”

In a 3-2 vote, the council voted to table the ordinance amending the borough code on March 2.

Councilmen Charlie Spicuzzo, John Melillo and Ted Ricci voted “no.” Councilman Jose Rivera and Kraemer voted “yes”.

Ricci said hiring a new officer is probably not the best thing to do because the council has not even done the annual municipal budget.

“When we review the budget and if there is money there to hire an officer then we can discuss it then,” Ricci said. “A female officer would be an asset to the police department, no doubt, but we can’t replace people that are on injury with new hires.”

In the past, Ricci said he has suggested to hire the potential candidate as a special duty officer since the council has not dealt with the municipal budget yet.

Spicuzzo said until the council can look over the municipal budget, he does not believe it is the right time to make a decision to add another salary until the budget is worked out.

“I agree that a woman officer would be great for the borough, I just don’t think the timing is right now for that,” Spicuzzo said.

Mellilo agreed with Ricci and Spicuzzo.

“I spoke to the [Zarro] and they just made their 28-day schedule and 19 of those days include overtime. I believe that we need a new officer to alleviate some of that overtime,” Kraemer said.

If both officers are able to come back, Kraemer said the police department will have an extra officer to fill in when an officer takes a vacation or is out sick.

“So I believe the ordinance should be changed and we should have another officer on duty,” Kraemer said.

Agreeing with Kraemer, Rivera said the potential candidate paid and put herself through the police academy and by hiring her it would cut the overtime in half.

“The overtime has been going on since September [2019] on one shift and then in October [2019] it doubled on two shifts. Now we are in March and in anticipation of that and the retirement of Patrolmen Michael Gardini. … I have prepared my budget, your budget for each head department is due usually around Thanksgiving time every year. Mine was one of the first ones submitted and I addressed this manpower issue,” Zarro said.

“When we lose one person, I use the analogy of the spoke in the wheel when we lose a spoke in the wheel the structural integrity of the wheel is compromised and it becomes an overtime issue immediately,” Zarro said. “That is actually what’s happening now on a triple front with the sergeants’ salary elevation, that is why I suggested adding an officer [with] starting salary.”

Zarro said adding another officer would be cost-effective.

“We do have a large number of people that can retire in a short period of time. For me, on a fiscally responsible front, it makes complete sense and I have preempted it by having my budget on time in November 2019,” Zarro said. “The council and the municipal government had this time to review it, fact check it, everything they needed to do to vet it out. Now we are in March and I could have had this new officer trained, cut loose and fill a vacant spot right now.”

Zarro said he anticipates that both officers will be out for at least a year, which is the most someone can stay out on a workman’s compensation claim.

“We have a stellar woman candidate and that would be our first woman in law enforcement and it is an ideal opportunity,” Zarro said. “She wants to be here, she wants to be a Spotswood police officer, she chose this agency. She had other places to choose and the timing was just perfect to do this right now.”

Zarro said the police department has up to five people who can retire in a year or so.

Resident Jackie Palmer said this is a public safety issue because the police department is currently understaffed.

“We can’t have our guys working 18-hour shifts, there is not enough manpower for them to work … and no offense but they all have families, too,” Palmer said. “They’re working an eight-hour shift then they are working four on the front end, four on the back end. … It’s a rough go for everybody, but because they are working that many hours now you are putting the public at risk.”

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.