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Lavallette Sues County Prosecutor to Take Back Control of Police Department

Lavallette police car. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Lavallette police car. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Lavallette is suing Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer, asking a judge in Mercer County to order control of the borough’s police department to be returned to the town – and to physically remove county personnel from borough hall after they “commandeered” office space without paying rent.

The prosecutor’s office took over day-to-day control of the department after former chief Colin Grant took advantage of “terminal leave,” an extended period of unused vacation time granted to some public employees as they prepare for retirement. Grant’s final day of work was in May, and his retirement became official Nov. 1, 2022. The prosecutor’s office had been providing daily command leadership as the borough searched for a new chief, which ended with the appointment of then-Sgt. Christian LaCicero to the post Nov. 14. LaCicero, the son of Mayor Walter LaCicero, had served as an officer with the department for 18 years, following in the footsteps of his father who is a retired lieutenant. The younger LaCicero served as a sergeant for nine years before being appointed chief of the 11-member agency.

The department’s relationship with the prosecutor’s office has never been completely clear, and has been shrouded in rumors dating back to Dec. 2021, when the county took over the department’s Internal Affairs Bureau amidst pending disciplinary actions against certain employees. It is unclear whether those disciplinary issues have been resolved. This followed with a complete takeover of the department after Grant’s terminal leave began, however borough officials claim the county has never actually provided details as to what the borough must do to retake control.

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The only specific requirement the prosecutor has set forth is accreditation by the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, an administrative and training audit process that some departments undertake in order to limit liability and save on insurance premiums. Accreditation through the private organization, however, is not required under state law, and Lavallette officials said the accreditation process would cost the borough money rather than save money, and the county has not provided resources to cover those costs.

The lawsuit, a copy of which is embedded underneath this story, was filed March 15 by Borough Attorney William Burns on behalf of Borough Administrator John O. Bennett and Councilwoman Joanne Filippone, the borough’s public safety chair and liaison to the department, as well as Chief Christian LaCicero. Billhimer, New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin, the Ocean County Board of Commissioners, and Commissioners Gary Quinn and Jack Kelly in their role as liaisons to county law enforcement, were named as defendants.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of several letters sent back-and-forth between Bennett and Billhimer, the last of which was sent by Bennett in December. Billhimer never responded to the December letter, which came after the prosecutor’s office advised borough officials against appointing a new police chief and confirming they would not relinquish command.

An October letter from Billhimer stated that despite the imminent appointment of a police chief, his office “will continue to maintain full command and control of the Borough of Lavallette Police Department until such time as the Borough of Lavallette Police Department meets the standard of applicable OAG Directives, OCPO Directives, and if fully accredited.”

Lavallette officials claim the county has never articulated which OAG (Office of the Attorney General) directives or county directives are not being followed, and reiterated that there is no legal requirement for accreditation.

“Since the inception of the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office full command and control of the Borough of Lavallette Police Department significant discussions and negotiations have centered around the Borough of Lavallette Police Department becoming fully accredited,” the complaint stated. “It is important to note that there is no statutory or regulatory requirement in New Jersey which mandates accreditation.”

Borough officials have calculated that it would cost $43,900 to hire an accreditation consultant along with a $13,500 renewal fee for just $5,066 in insurance premium savings. Thereafter, the borough would be required to pay $8,000 annually to renew its accreditation.

New Police Chief Christian LaCicero is administered the oath of office, Nov. 14, 2022. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

New Police Chief Christian LaCicero is administered the oath of office, Nov. 14, 2022. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

“It is respectfully submitted that the appointment of a duly qualified police chief, one with almost two decades of law enforcement experience, has filled the void that left the … department without the appropriate level of direction and supervision,” the complaint states, adding that this “eliminated the only articulated reason for command and control of the Borough of Lavallette Police Department by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.”

The prosecutor’s office “has failed to provide any additional documentation or information to justify their continued involvement,” the complaint goes on to say, asking a judge to restore local control.

The complaint also seeks injunctive relief to return office space to the borough that has been taken up by county personnel since May.

The prosecutor office “has commandeered office space in the Lavallette Municipal Building, specifically the office designated by the governing body and appropriate authority as the Chief of Police’s office,” the lawsuit states, adding that the presence of county personnel has “prohibited the duly appointed Police Chief from occupying the office the governing body has identified as the Police Chief’s office” and that the office “has not provided the Borough of Lavallette with remuneration for the use and occupancy of the Lavallette municipal building.”

The prosecutor’s office has not yet filed an answer to the complaint. According to a case track assignment notice, the case will necessitate a 150-day discovery period which commences at the time an answer is filed, or 90 days from the filing of the complaint.

It is the policy of both the prosecutor’s office and the borough to decline to comment on pending litigation. Shorebeat will report on future activity in the proceedings, including any answers filed by the prosecutor’s office.

Read the Lawsuit:

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