Englewood Police Chief Lawrence Suffern retired on Wednesday.
Suffern, who’d been on vacation and was due to return Wednesday, was Bergen County's only Black police chief. He retired effective Thursday, city officials announced in a release.
“Best chief ever to have served our great city,” Mayor Michael Wildes said following the announcement. “Respected in the county and serving since he was 18 years old for the last 33 years.”
"What a sad day in Englewood this is!" wrote Rasheed J. Goins. "Thank you for your leadership and serving our community with such grace for all these years. I’m sorry to say the residents will not have a [c]hief like you going forward."
"With all that’s going on in the police department at this time, it’s a very sad day for Englewood residents and our safety as a community," added Ainsworth Minott.
Not everyone held Suffern in such esteem.
Over the past year, he'd become the focus of a struggle between supporters and those who accused him of gutting his department's command structure.
Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella placed a monitor in control of the Englewood Police Department this past December amid allegations that Suffern singled out officers for punishment by denying them extra-work opportunities.
Prosecutor’s investigators had other concerns, as well.
With a force of 80 or so sworn officers, Suffern had been at the top of a power structure that had only a single captain holding a rank of significance below him.
“You’ve got one chief, one administrative sergeant, one detective captain and that’s it,” a law enforcement source with knowledge of the prosecutor’s findings told Daily Voice.
“There’s no deputy chief, no patrol captain, no administrative captain, no administrative lieutenant, no patrol lieutenant overseeing operations – just a chief running administration and patrol,” the source said.
“You basically have a chief running administration and patrol, with the entire department answering directly to him, with the exception of a sergeant and lieutenant (who report to the captain). You can’t run a police department that way.”
Although takeovers of local police department by higher authorities rarely end well for those in charge, many held out hope that one of the city's favorite sons would emerge unscathed.
Born and raised in Englewood, Suffern was graduated from Dwight Morrow High School and then Fairleigh Dickinson University, first with a Bachelor’s degree and, later, a Masters.
He joined the city police department as a dispatcher in 1987 and was hired as an officer the next year.
Suffern was promoted to detective in 1994, serving in the Youth Services Unit and Internal Affairs Unit, before becoming sergeant three years later. He became a lieutenant a decade later and was assigned as the department’s administrative officer soon after that.
Suffern was promoted to the deputy chief in 2009 before becoming chief in January 2014.
Wildes said Suffern has “left an indelible mark and will be remembered for his professionalism and stellar service.”
"His tenacity to serve his community and the officers of his department aligned with his allegiance to his professional responsibilities," the mayor said. "The chief’s capacity for empathy and understanding, along with his dedication to public safety, his interaction within the community, and the commitment to fairness in his department, will long be remembered and appreciated."
Others will point to what they say was a recent pattern of favoritism and retribution.
Englewood's PBA sued Suffern last year, claiming that he violated the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the city when he “unilaterally eliminated extra duty utility and vendor work” for certain officers without justification."
Extra-work assignments include security for schools, churches and synagogues, as well as handling traffic and other duties for utility companies and other contractors to protect public safety.
By eliminating the extra-duty work, Suffern “impose[d] a significant disability on the officers’ ability to secure future off-duty employment,” the PBA suit says.
The chief also established new uniform and facial hair requirements, it says.
The union says the moves were “part of a campaign of retaliatory efforts against PBA unit members” who approved no-confidence votes last year against Suffern's and former Deputy Chief Gregory Halstead's “integrity and competence to lead.”
Eight officers opposed the move, publicly expressing support for the chief and deputy chief. The PBA suspended the eight, who then resigned from the union and established their own Fraternal Order of Police chapter.
Soon after came a protest march that drew headlines when it sparked a brief skirmish.
March organizers blamed over overzealous officers intent on denying their rights. The PBA, in turn, said they provoked their arrests by interfering in an incident along the route.
Halstead quickly and quietly retired last December – also at the beginning of the month -- leaving questions about how and when his position would be filled and how other department operations would proceed.
Meanwhile, divisiveness has continued between community organizers and certain police officers, as well as among the chief, PBA members and other officers.
Enter the Bergen County prosecutor.
A Memorandum of Agreement between the city and Musella's office in December temporarily suspended Suffern’s authority, giving Musella’s monitor “temporary direction and control of the internal affairs functions of the Englewood Police Department; and to review as necessary all other policies, procedures and functions of the Englewood Police Department to remedy any policy and performance deficiencies within the Englewood Police Department and to retrain its personnel as required.”
“The Monitor and supporting personnel shall have full authority to audit all past and present functions of the Englewood Police Department's internal affairs functions and to temporarily direct and control the internal affairs functions of the Englewood Police Department without limitation, including the direction of all Englewood Police Department personnel in the performance of their internal affairs duties, the investigation of all internal affairs matters, and the resolution of all internal affairs investigations, including the charging of all Englewood Police Department personnel,” the agreement says.
The monitor will have “broad authority to review all other policies, procedures and functions of the Englewood Police Department to ensure that those policies, procedures and functions are in compliance with Attorney General and BCPO directives and guidelines and proper law enforcement policy, procedure and practice,” it adds.
Wildes, the mayor, told residents that Suffern's retirement "will add to a greater void in leadership...[I]t is one in which the city of Englewood is dedicated to addressing in the immediate future. Nevertheless, the residents should understand that public safety is our first priority."
The second, he said, will be "working through the vacancies within the department to ensure staffing levels are met."
And thirdly, Wildes said, officials will be "working to restore the culture within the police department.
"The [c]ity is committed to address all of these in the short and long term and apprising the public when appropriate," the mayor said.
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