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Lavallette Police Chief Disputes Prosecutor’s Office Report of ‘Deficiencies’ in Department

Lavallette police car. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Lavallette police car. (Photo: Daniel Nee)

Lavallette Police Chief Christian LaCicero delivered a response to a report from the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office that described what the county agency saw as “deficiencies” in the department, telling residents that the prosecutor’s office’s report led to “salacious headlines” in some media sources that could confuse residents.

LaCicero delivered the seven-page report in response to a 23-page report released by the prosecutor’s office after it handed control of the Lavallette Police Department back to the borough after commanding it since May. The county relinquished control just days after Lavallette filed a lawsuit over the matter, saying the prosecutor’s office “commandeered” space at borough hall, locked the newly-appointed chief out of his office and never specified what, exactly, they were seeking the from the borough. LaCicero, an 18-year veteran of the department who had been serving as a sergeant for nine years, was appointed chief in Nov. 2021, but only began overseeing day-to-day operations last month.

“The office was a contentious issue, and it was part of the lawsuit,” said LaCicero. “I wasn’t given access to the chief’s office from the start. They would shut the door on me and have private conversations amongst themselves. I had no access until the 24th [of March].”

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The department’s relationship with the prosecutor’s office had never been completely clear, and had 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 former Chief Colin Grant took “terminal leave” before retiring – essentially, using accrued vacation time ahead of an official retirement. Borough officials claim the county never actually provided details as to what the borough was expected to do to retake control, even after a new chief was appointed.

The report from the prosecutor’s office noted several “deficiencies” at the department, including the appointment of a new internal affairs officer, problems with an e-mail system, the use of a town-owned radio system, the use of a computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, system, evaluations, body armor policies and the department choosing not to carry long guns in the compartment of their vehicles or run radar units. The full report is embedded below this story.

LaCicero disputed much of the report, zeroing in on some areas which he said were misrepresented.

Radios and Records

Lavallette officials say they are one of the few small towns in Ocean County that maintains its own radio communications system and dispatch. For years, the council has said keeping dispatching local helps provide extra services for the community, including welfare checks on senior citizens and quicker responses to calls since the Lavallette address and ZIP code are used by communities in other jurisdictions. The borough has invested heavily in its radio system since a federal law required new equipment that is compatible with newly-assigned frequencies. The particular event mentioned by OCPO in its report references a power failure in the water tower that resulted in the battery backup system running out of power.

“The radio system remained operational, but with limited range,” LaCicero’s response said. “The system was quickly repaired by the Borough once the problem was realized. The antenna was not replaced, and the system remains operating exceptionally well. The Department also has several redundant back-up systems in place. Personal cellular phones were used to notify dispatch of the problem when the radio system experienced issues. Contrary to the OCPO report, the use of cellular phones as a primary means of communication was never a common practice.

LaCicero also said the department’s e-mail server functions properly and never needed an update, and still operates as it always has. Meanwhile, the OCPO report lodged criticism about the department’s use of the dispatching software, saying the department was not used to “flag” locations or individuals in the system.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of flags were input into the system to identify persons and places who tested positive for COVID-19 for the protection of the officers and other emergency personnel,” LaCicero said, disputing the allegation.

LaCicero also said he personally worked to update the department’s forms, many of which were not updated because there was no opportunity to do so after Grant retired.

Daily Operations

The OCPO report indicates that the county’s contingent of officers in command of the department updated “Fit for Duty” evaluations to include psychological evaluations, however while not specifically codified, the department had utilized such examinations for years. Psychological evaluations did not become a state requirement until 2023, “however the department has long recognized the importance of this screening process,” LaCicero said.

OCPO also suggested a two-car minimum on patrol during the daytime in the off-season, however LaCicero said in 2014, Grant asked the borough council to allow a one-car minimum during certain hours. This policy will not change under the new chief, who said it is consistent with the staffing levels of other small police departments in Ocean County and was approved by the borough council via ordinance.

Meanwhile, radar units have returned to some of Lavallette’s police vehicles after being removed under Grant’s tenure as chief.

“Chief Grant had discontinued the use of RADAR units as the equipment upkeep and training costs did not justify any anticipated court revenue,” the response said.

LaCicero also said that while the OCPO report suggested officers’ pepper spray may have been flammable, the manufacturer disputed those claims and the words “not flammable” were physically printed on the labels.

Of concern to at least one borough council member was OCPO’s suggestion for long gun racks to be placed in the cabin of police vehicles.

“We objected to having them ride around Lavallette with shotguns attached where these mounts go,” said Councilwoman Joanne Filippone. “Chief LaCicero came up with an alternative to put them in a properly-secured case in the trunk. I asked if they knew what kind of community Lavallette was. We have a lot of elderly in our community and I’m not sure if they want to see our police riding around with shotguns.”

LaCicero, for his part, also disputed the OCPO report’s suggestion that county officials trained and mentored him after being appointed chief.

“There is no official training for the ‘Chief of Police’ position,” he said, explaining that he did attend a session led by the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police intended for newly-appointed chiefs. “There were about 100 of us in the room, and they covered topics that a new chief may face. In no part did [OCPO] have any coordination of that training. The borough paid for it and I attended it on my own.”

Filippone also labeled as “absurd” an allegation that there were issues in the department’s evidence locker room.

“The evidence room was audited by OCPO evidence personnel,” the response said. “All evidence was accounted for during the audit. OCPO and the borough administration disagreed on the manner in which currency would be turned over to the Borough. The currency in question is largely items turned into the ‘Lost and Found’ and is placed into evidence for safe keeping, and is less than $500 in total.”

Filippone said the entire matter was brought up over about $25 that had been sitting in the “lost and found” area, which the prosecutor’s office insisted should be placed into its own bank account.

“If you have an account with less than $500, you’re charged bank fees,” she said, presuming the fees would eat away the small amount of cash. “It was absurd. The money sat. It’s currently being transferred where we wanted – and that kind of nitpicking stuff was ridiculous. They always had to be right, the borough always had to be wrong.”

What Remains?

“It seemed like they left on short notice,” LaCicero said, describing the exit of county personnel. Papers, including psychological evaluations, were left on a desk and trash was left in a bin. The chief’s office, to which he had no access, was left in “disarray,” he added.

The county said some deficiencies remained in the department after their exit, including a “lack of command staff,” no full-time detective, and officers not being equipped with Tasers.

“Just last year, the department had, at one time, four out of eleven officers out of work on various types of leave,” the response said, with regard to adding additional supervisors. “Today, the department is still short two officers, nearly 20 percent of the workforce. Until the department returns to full staffing, it is not prudent to add any additions to the rank structure, especially at the top of the department.”

The response also noted that “there are not enough investigations” to warrant the hiring of a full-time detective.

The county agency also strongly suggested the borough achieve 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 does not provide resources to cover those costs.

LaCicero, Filippone, and Borough Administrator John O. Bennett met with representatives from Lexipol, the accreditation consultant, regarding the accreditation process, and then evaluated its necessity.

“We sat for their presentation, and it’s something that could be beneficial in the long run,” said LaCicero. “The cost was the factor. We’d lose $40,000 to start and $8,000 or $9,000 to maintain [accreditation] per year. The [insurance] discount was $5,000 per year.”

LaCicero, since taking command of the department, has begun updating standard operating procedures, conducting his own audit of training files, and has appointed Sgt. Mike Monica as the new internal affairs officer. Monica will undergo specific training for the position.

“Chief LaCicero has made several changes to department operations already, including returning to a one car minimum, which will maximize the efficiency of the department.,” the response concluded. “In addition to these issues, Chief LaCicero is also continuing an update of the department Standard Operating Procedures. Many SOPs have been identified in need of updating and overhaul to ensure the department is operating in accordance with current best practices.

The OCPO report, and the full response, are both embedded below:

OCPO Report:

Departmental Response:

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