Whichever way the winds of public opinion may blow, a 125 officer police department is not enough to keep Brick Township residents as safe as they should be, said Police Chief Nils R. Bergquist in an interview this week.
A ballot question posed to voters in this month's election asked voters whether they would be willing to spend $2,396,760 per year on 15 additional officers, which would bring the total number of officers to 140, the number Bergquist says is necessary to properly patrol a town the size of Brick.
The wording of the ballot led to a spat between township officials and the local police union, which disputed the cost of employing officers and said the tax impact described by the ballot question was inflated. Nevertheless, voters soundly rejected the measure 71-28 percent.
Placing the question on the ballot was a "reasonable approach by the council to address a serious problem," said Bergquist, though he said he also took issue with the question's wording. "I was a little disappointed in the manner in which the question was worded, and I think it created some confusion out there."
Still, Bergquist said, the initial problem of too few officers remains. The problem has been brewing for many years, he added.
"We've never kept pace with the population growth" in town, said Bergquist.
The department, young by New Jersey standards, was created in 1971. Before that year, State Police patrolled the then-rural township. As population skyrocketed, the force was expanded, but not to the level recommended by various panels over the years.
Manpower reached a high of 133 in 2005, but officers who have retired since have not been replaced due to budget constraints. Bergquist fears that next year's expected 2 percent cap on expenditures and tax increases put into place by the legislature and Gov. Chris Christie could once again restrict the department from adding additional officers.
"We talk almost every day on how we're going to accomplish this," said Bergquist, of discussions between the department and the Township Council. "A lot is dependent on what happens in Trenton. The town is approaching a number of different ways to raise revenue to fund departments within the municipal government, and hopefully some of that will come to fruition."
Funding mechanisms have included placing red-light violation cameras at two busy intersections and finalizing approval for a solar energy farm to be constructed at the former French's Landfill site off Sally Ike Road, according to Mayor Stephen C. Acropolis. Acropolis has also said he is considering placing an additional question on the 2011 seeking voters approval to exceed the 2 percent cap. State law requires 60 percent of voters to approve breaking cap.
But for Bergquist, the first priority is protecting Brick Township residents. As the population has expanded, so has the variety of crimes officers have dealt with, he said.
"Fifteen years ago, if you asked me if we were going to have two gang-related shootings in a four week period, I would've said it's possible but high improbable," said Bergquist. The department responded to those incidents this year. Dealing with increasing levels of gang activity, Bergquist said, is one of the department's battles which has suffered as officers have been taken off special beats and put back on patrol.
The elite Selective Enforcement Team, which involved efforts including plainclothes officers, high-visibility patrols and surveillance details, was disbanded earlier this year. The SET team was tasked with "getting into the gangs' faces," said Bergquist, and citing them for as many violations as possible.
"All street gangs derive their profits from the sale of illicit drugs," said Bergquist. "To that end, the majority of our property crime and our robberies is committed by people involved in narcotics and opiates; to a lesser degree, crack cocaine."
In a six-month period, the SET unit increased the number of drug-related arrests by 300 percent. Well over 500 arrests were made at the height of the unit's tenure in town.
"It had an impact, but that said, we did not have enough people on staff to address the call volume in a reasonable manner," said Bergquist.
But following a "disappointing" result on Election Day, Bergquist is not deterred.
"No one is just sitting idly by and waiting to see what happens," he said. "Everyone is rolling up their sleeves and trying to figure out the best way to approach this."