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Prosecutor Finds Rampant Violations: Palisades Parkway PD Chief Suspended

PIP police officers at Fort Lee Historic Park.
PIP police officers at Fort Lee Historic Park. Photo Credit: Jerry DeMarco

The chief of the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police Department was suspended for 90 days and will likely have to attend management training courses when he returns, according to a scathing report from Acting Bergen County Prosecutor Dennis Calo's office that uncovered a host of violations -- many that fell short of being criminal.

Although the Palisades Interstate Parkway Commision imposed the suspension on Chief Michael Coppola beginning this Monday, the prosecutor also "strongly advise[d]" that it direct him to attend specialized training, as well.

"We also strongly advise that the PIPC engage a law enforcement professional with management experience to update the policies and procedures of the department and ensure that the PIPPD adheres to those policies and procedures, as well as to all Attorney General and BCPO directives," Calo said.

A temporary officer-in-charge will run the department while Coppola is gone, the prosecutor said. Calo also offered to help during that period.

Whether Coppola would remain chief was an open question.

Among the violations found by investigators, Calo said:

  • PIP police violated state Attorney General's guidelines in 36 of its 41 high-speed chases since January 2014 -- with officers exceeding 100 mph a total of 23 times and more than 120 mph 13 times (One chased exceeded 130 mph and ended with a motorcyclist dying in a crash: Motorcyclist Crashes, Dies In Palisades Interstate Parkway Police Chase );
  • Officer also used the public "as blocking vehicles" three times, "presenting a high risk of danger to police and public alike," deliberately struck fleeing vehicles with theirs twice and drove the wrong way on the Parkway four times, all in violation of the guidelines;
  • Eight times officers chasing fleeing vehicles off the Parkway went through local streets at high speeds eight times -- including once when an officer did 100 mph in a 25 mph zone while blowing past traffic lights;
  • Although no more than two vehicles should be used in a pursuit without authorization from a supervisor, the department exceeded the number seven times -- including a chase that involved 11 PIP police cars;
  • The department used the Internet "to lure small-scale narcotics distributors to PIP property to effect their arrest" and at times "intruded into neighboring jurisdictions, causing complaints from those jurisdictions. Last July, one of those operations led to the death of a man who fell from the Palisades. PIP police didn't notify the prosecutor's office, as required ( Body Of Man Who Fled Police In Fort Lee Park Found At Foot Of Palisades );
  • The department treated allegations of misconduct against officers as "mere rule violations" instead of potential criminal cases;
  • Coppola offered a rewards program -- favorable parking spaces, newer police pursuit vehicles and a meal allowance of $200 – to those officers in the squad with the highest summons/arrest activity for each month;
  • Coppola, although not receiving compensation, owned a company called CJIS Solutions LLC that provided IT services to the department, a potential crime. The relationship between CJIS Solutions and the PIPPD "continues to present a potential severe conflict of interest, which demands that the connection be severed," Calo wrote;
  • Officers created the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police Association, which they "represented as a charitable organization" while soliciting public donations and offering "honorary memberships" to civilians.

The prosecutor's office has been monitoring the PIPPD since mid-November, following the separate deaths last year of the motorcyclist and the man who fell from the Palisades.

"In addition to the remedial measures...the BCPO conducted comprehensive retraining for PIPPD officers on the Attorney General's Pursuit Policy, IA Guidelines and Procedures, the Use of Force, Bias Crimes/Racially Influenced Policing, and Evidence Collection," Calo said.

T"o our knowledge, during direct oversight by the monitor, there have been no violations by the PIPPD of any Attorney General or BCPO directives and the PIPPD has performed its core patrol function well," he added. "This indicates that, with proper direction, the PIPPD can be a disciplined and effective law enforcement agency."

The monitor will remain, Calo said, until the department shows that it is "capable of efficient operation without direct oversight."

The Palisades Interstate Parkway Police Dept is responsible for the public safety of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission properties and the 11-mile stretch of parkway in New Jersey.

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