Hackensack PD had ‘a lot of issues’ in years past. Can an ex-detective turn things around?

Hackensack PD had ‘a lot of issues’ in years past. Can an ex-detective turn things around?

HACKENSACK — The city has hired a consultant to examine the workings of its Police Department, which has undergone reform after a recent history of turmoil.

Robert Anzilotti, the retired chief of detectives for the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, is conducting the review through his company, R3 Strategies & Solutions.

“For years now we’ve worked to improve the Police Department,” Mayor John Labrosse said. “The department had a lot of issues. We had a police chief under indictment. We were sued by 22 police officers at one time. It was very costly for the city. Slowly but surely, the culture changes and they’ve come a long way.”

Hackensack is paying Anzilotti $60,000 to take a comprehensive look at the department, including its organizational structure, overtime expenses, and community engagement. His report will be completed before the end of June, he said.

Anzilotti recently worked with Palisades Park to help that department move in a new direction after a tumultuous decade of suspensions, lawsuits, infighting, and a steady churn of leadership.

Hackensack has faced a slew of controversies and costly lawsuits over the past decade or so. In 2009, the first two officers of what would eventually grow to more than 20 filed lawsuits against the city and former Police Chief Ken Zisa.

More: Why a wave of lawsuits in Fair Lawn may point to a bigger issue among police departments

Some of the complaints alleged that Zisa had coerced the officers to contribute to his campaigns for public office or they would be punished. The city has paid more than $8 million in settlements related to those lawsuits.

In 2012, Zisa was convicted of fraud and other charges stemming from a 2008 car accident in which he was accused of taking his girlfriend away from the scene before a sobriety test could be conducted and ordering officers to falsify their reports. That conviction was later overturned on appeal.

The city was court-ordered to pay Zisa $2.8 million for legal fees, back pay and other benefits he would have received had he not been forced out of his position after the conviction.

More recently, the city was involved in a lengthy court battle over the fates of three Hackensack officers accused of a warrantless apartment search in 2016. The city suspended the officers in May 2017 after an internal affairs investigation determined that the officers had fabricated a report of an unattended child to use as a pretext to enter the apartment.

More: Two Hackensack cops implicated in warrantless search can’t be fired, court rules

The city moved to fire the officers involved, and they fought for lesser penalties. Two of the officers were suspended last year by the Civil Service Commission. In October, an appellate court affirmed the two suspensions and ruled that those officers should not have been fired but upheld the city’s decision to fire the third.

The 107-member department has not had a police chief since Zisa. Capt. Darrin DeWitt is the officer-in-charge.

“One of the things I’ve found is a lot of times when you don’t get an outside perspective, things are done just because they’ve always been done a certain way,” Anzilotti said. “I can tell you Hackensack has made great strides. At first blush they’re extremely professional, they seem to be doing a tremendous job and they’ve been absolutely cooperative through the whole process.”

Less use of force

Last year, police officers began using 120 body cameras that the city purchased to help foster trust and accountability. Complaints of excessive force have been declining in recent years due to the use of the cameras, improved training, and better community relations, officials said.

A renewed focus on community policing is one of the priorities for the department, Labrosse said.

“Interactions between citizens and police is a healthy thing,” he said. “We have a growing downtown. Having police officers on the street makes people feel safer. When you know who your police officers are, it brings a certain amount of respect for what they do.”