Cimino, Maplewood reach settlement

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Maplewood Township Committee announced Sept. 27 that it had finally reached a settlement with beleaguered police Chief Robert Cimino, just two days before the township released a copy of independent investigator Hillard Heintze’s incident report on the Maplewood Police Department’s actions on July 5, 2016, in which Maplewood police are accused of using excessive force on rowdy teenagers and attempting to herd Maplewood residents into Irvington.

According to the township, Cimino, who has been on administrative leave with pay since August, will remain on paid administrative leave through Dec. 31; he will retire from township employment effective Jan. 1. A vote on the settlement was placed on the agenda for the Township Committee’s Oct. 3 meeting, which occurred after press time.

“The settlement follows votes by the Township Committee on Aug. 1, 2017, expressing ‘no confidence in Maplewood Police Chief Robert Cimino’ and demanding his ‘immediate resignation,’” the Sept. 27 release from the Township Committee reads. “Faced with the prospects of extended and costly administrative and legal proceedings regarding this matter and a legal assessment which concluded there would be little likelihood of success in such proceedings, the Township Committee has reluctantly deemed it to be in the best interest of the township to enter into this settlement. The settlement will successfully achieve the Township Committee’s overriding goal of not having Mr. Cimino return to his post as chief of the Maplewood Police Department.”

Due to state laws, the township could not outright fire Cimino, who is heard on tapes from the night of July 5, 2016, telling his officers to push the rowdy teenagers toward the Irvington border. State law NJSA 40A:14-147 states that: “No permanent member or officer of the police department or force shall be removed from his office, employment or position for political reasons or for any cause other than incapacity, misconduct, or disobedience of rules and regulations established for the government of the police department and force, nor shall such member or officer be suspended, removed, fined or reduced in rank from or in office, employment, or position therein, except for just cause.” Additionally, any such disciplinary proceeding must be based upon a written complaint against the employee, who shall then be entitled to a hearing. The employee may then appeal any penalty in excess of five days suspension without pay.

While to a layman it seems that the township has cause to terminate Cimino’s employment, under the law the town does not. Following the incident, the township referred the case to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, which told Maplewood months later that “there is insufficient credible evidence to warrant a prosecution in this matter” and the investigation “failed to disclose sufficient evidence to clearly prove or disprove the allegation and it is closed as not sustained. No further action will be taken by this office.”

At the Sept. 28 Hilton Neighborhood Association candidates forum, Mayor Vic DeLuca expressed his frustration with the ECPO’s response, saying he doubts whether the office even investigated the matter.

In light of the ECPO’s report, the township is legally precluded from issuing any discipline to Cimino regarding the events of July 5, 2016.

“Therefore, a settlement with Mr. Cimino, as recommended and approved by the township’s legal counsel, is the best option to ensure that Mr. Cimino no longer serves as the chief of the Maplewood Police Department,” the Sept. 27 release read.

In order to push a settlement through, the township had to make certain concessions to Cimino. Terms of the settlement are that Cimino will receive a payment by Jan. 15 of $49,479.85, representing his accumulated sick, vacation and personal time owed upon retirement; Cimino will receive a payment of $115,000 in 2018 and another in 2019; Cimino’s attorney, Cammarata, Nulty and Garrigan, will receive a payment of $15,000; Cimino will receive a letter stating that he served with dedication and professionalism for 36 years; and Cimino will receive a letter acknowledging he had no formal disciplinary actions sustained against him during his tenure as chief of police.

Additionally, under the terms of the settlement, Cimino agrees to forever release, acquit and discharge the township from and against all claims, actions and causes of action, and he agrees not to directly or indirectly disparage or otherwise bring into question or disrepute the township and its services, products, business reputation, abilities, or capabilities. Similarly, the township agrees that it will not authorize any township elected official or member of the township administration to make or cause to be made any defamatory or disparaging statements about or regarding Cimino.

While this seems like case closed for Cimino, former Maplewood Police Capt. Joshua Cummis, who recently retired after being placed on administrative leave with pay due to the July 5, 2016, incident, has filed a lawsuit against the township claiming he was wrongly suspended prior to his retirement and not given due process. He filed the lawsuit in Essex County Superior Court on Aug. 31, shortly before the Township Committee approved a $37,000 retirement package for Cummis on Sept. 5.

All of this, of course, happened prior to the Sept. 29 release of Hillard Heintze’s independent incident assessment of the July 5, 2016, incident. Following ECPO’s response to the incidents, as well as public outcry after audio and video footage from the night was released, the township hired the investigative firm to look into the incident, as well as Maplewood Police Department procedures.

The Hillard Heintze report cites 11 key findings resulting from its investigations.

The first finding was that the MPD is committed to serving Maplewood with integrity and that many officers expressed “heartfelt concern” about how the July 5, 2016, incident was handled, as well as the fact that public trust in the police department has eroded.

The second finding notes that the MPD could have dispersed the crowd and de-escalated the situation had its officers acted differently.

“MPD members had reasonable cause to respond with concern to a physical altercation between two females in a large crowd at the corner of Valley Avenue and Crowell Place after the fireworks display on the evening of July 5, 2016,” the report reads. “For any large gathering, it is essential to address disorderly activity as soon as possible to prevent the disorder from spreading to the rest of the crowd. However, what initially began as an apparent crowd control tactic to disperse young people from the scene of the altercation quickly expanded into a prolonged and counterproductive effort to prevent the youth from dispersing by themselves, forcing them instead on a 1.3-mile walk to the far eastern border of the township.”

Hillard Heintze investigators believe the crowd would have calmly dispersed on its own with proper de-escalation techniques. Additionally, the report later states that many officers believed this as well but did not feel comfortable questioning Cimino’s orders.

The third finding states that Cimino was in command of the incident.

“It was readily apparent that the chief of police had taken command upon his arrival and was responsible for the tactics employed during the crowd control operation,” the report reads. “Aside from one captain who accompanied the chief in a vehicle, it does not appear that the chief sought advice from any of the other command officers or supervisors during the incident.”

Additionally, some department personnel interviewed by Hillard Heintze did say that it appeared as if Cimino were not entirely sure of his orders himself.

“Some MPD interviewees said the chief was exhibiting behaviors they interpreted as indicating he was not quite sure of what he was doing,” the report later reads. “For example, one supervisor, who was in an unmarked police vehicle with subordinate officers, indicated the chief approached their vehicle and verbally ordered the driver and passenger to step out. They believed the chief thought they were individuals not associated with the department. Then they exited the vehicle to ask the chief what he needed, one individual stated the chief appeared to ‘look through’ them and simply walked away without giving them any assignment.”

The fourth finding indicates the opportunity for officers to intervene and voice their concerns after Cimino gave his orders. The report specifies that questioning an order through the proper channels does not equal disobeying an order.

“Command officers and supervisors, as well as first-line officers, took direction from the chief of police without questioning his reasons for implementing the prolonged crowd control operation in which they were engaged, even though several of the interviewees stated they believed the tactic eventually became inappropriate and ineffective,” the report reads. “Based on our interviews, there was no evidence of any intervention by an officer or command staff members during the crowd control operation.”

The report later states that “interviewees (within the department) consistently answered that because the chief was giving the direction, they did not want to countermand his orders, nor did they feel comfortable doing so. They indicated that this was a very unusual circumstance; the chief of police very rarely actively participates in patrol or street enforcement operations, so they felt uncomfortable raising issues with him about the operation as it transpired that night.”

The report also states that officers cited the department’s internal culture as a prohibitive factor in their choice to question the chief’s orders, with some personnel staying that the chief “does not always exhibit effective ‘people skills’ when interacting with the rank and file.” Additionally, some officers told Hillard Heintze investigators that they had decided to give Cimino the benefit of the doubt, wondering whether he had knowledge about ongoing operational details that they did not that necessitated their subsequent actions.

While the report highlights the reasons officers and supervisors did not question Cimino’s orders, it also stresses that although they had opportunity to speak up, they chose not to. The report also points out that the reasons given for personnel not questioning the chief were based solely on individual opinions, despite there being consistency among those interviewed.

The fifth finding states that it is crucial for the department to implement procedural justice and de-escalation concepts, citing a concern that former and ongoing training in these matters was not provided to MPD personnel, aside from the initial training they received to become officers.

The sixth finding states that there is a lack of internal procedure within the MPD, which is in opposition to the MPD’s mission “to provide a supportive and personally enriching workplace for members of the organization.”

The seventh finding states that there has not been sufficient training for MPD personnel to speak up when questionable tactics are employed.

“A theme commonly heard by our assessment team was internal distrust and fear of discipline if one were to deviate from expected behavior as determined or preferred by the chief of police. MPD members also reportedly do not have routine interactions with the chief during operations in the field. Therefore, command officers, supervisors and rank-and-file officers were not accustomed to interacting with the chief in circumstances such as those that occurred on the night of July 5, 2016,” the report reads.

The eighth finding suggested integrating de-escalation and procedural justice into performance expectations. The report also pointed out that annual performance appraisals do not appear to be completed on a routine basis within the department each year.

The ninth finding suggested codifying crowd control and incident management protocols, citing the lack of written standard operating procedures as a contributing factor in the incident’s escalation.

The 10th finding, similar to the fifth, states that the MPD can do more to formally train officers in crowd control and incident management.

Lastly, the 11th finding noted a lack of community engagement, suggesting that rectifying this should become an organizational priority.

“It does not appear that a robust community-policing program, including a focus on engaging in ongoing, day-to-day interaction with youth, has been an organization priority for the department,” the report reads.

As for the internal affairs investigation, which has to date formally disciplined seven officers, the report stated that “there were no indications that the MPD personnel responsible for conducting the internal affairs investigation were attempting to slow down the process or were not striving to move as quickly as possible.” The report specifically states that while the ECPO was investigating the incident, the Maplewood internal affairs unit was asked to cease its investigation and did so. The report explains that, due to the differences between criminal investigations and disciplinary investigations, conducting both concurrently can cause problems and make potential future prosecution more difficult. Additionally, Hillard Heintze found that, through no fault of their internal affairs unit, the investigation was slowed down upon resuming after Cimino assigned the unit an administrative task to work on concurrently.

The report concludes by proffering 12 recommendations for the department: to adopt a standard operating procedure on crowd control based on best practices; to ensure all necessary personnel are trained in crowd management and control principles; to continue to develop special orders for individual events; to create an after-action review and report following any crowd control actions to determine areas for improvement; to provide formal, mandatory training to all sworn personnel on procedural justice and community policing; to make internal procedural justice a part of the MPD’s organizational culture; to consider providing mandatory de-escalation training to sworn personnel; to consider providing formal, mandatory peer intervention training; to provide opportunities for leadership training; to train MPD supervisors to assess the abilities of MPD sworn personnel; to commit to improving relationships with the community, especially youth; and to consider having MPD command staff refrain from assigning major administrative tasks to internal affairs officers assigned to investigate high-level complaints to avoid lag.

“As is the case with many incidents in the news, a police department committed to serving its community was sidetracked by a one-time issue that shed light on potential areas of improvement,” the report reads. “Based on our discussions with police officers, supervisors, command staff, township officials and community members, we believe the MPD can overcome these challenges and move forward to improve its relationship with the community.”