Overtime, long shifts concern EO police, fire and public

Photo by Chris Sykes
Eight of the 50 new East Orange Police Division recruits Mayor Ted Green introduced at his inauguration and swearing-in ceremony on Monday, Jan. 1, stand together in the lobby of the Cicely Tyson School of the Performing and Fine Arts theater, where the event took place.EAST ORANGE, NJ — Mayor Ted Green’s Transition Team’s Public Safety Team met before an audience in the Langston Hughes Elementary School Auditorium on Tuesday, Dec. 12, to discuss the dangers of overworking East Orange Police Division officers by forcing them to work back-to-back 16-hour shifts during their regular job schedules.

Although Green addressed the audience, the team took center stage. Members included: Billy Oliver, Ronald Salahudin, Irvington Public Safety Director Tracy Bowers, Deputy Public Safety Director John Brown, retired former Irvington Police Department Capt. Amanda Koontz, Orange Police Director Todd Warren, Orange Fire Department Capt. Jamie Anderson, and others.

East Orange Public Safety Director Sheilah Coley, fire Chief Andre Williams and police Chief Phyllis Bindi, all appointed by former Mayor Lester Taylor, were in the audience at the meeting, which Transition Team Chairwoman Tracy Munford described as an opportunity for the incoming administration to interact with the public.

This meeting was the first public confirmation of an ongoing labor dispute in the East Orange Police Division between the Fraternal Order of Police and the Policemen Benevolent Association unions that represent the rank-and-file officers in the department. At that point, attorneys representing the unions, the East Orange Public Safety Department and the city had already appeared in court before Judge Donald A. Kessler in the matter of their dispute.

According to EOPD Fraternal Order of Police union President Craig Epps and PBA union President Elaine Settle, the back-to-back 16-hour work schedules began after Kessler ruled in the unions’ favor by declaring the department could not force officers to work multiple 12-hour shifts in violation of their existing labor contract, although it expired and has yet to be renegotiated or renewed.

The unions initially complained about the legality of officers being forced to work multiple 12-hour shifts in order to offset an apparent manpower shortage within the department, and Kessler ruled in their favor. Afterward, Epps and Settle alleged that the hours an officer worked per shift increased from 12 to 16 hours, which the public addressed at the meeting.

“I do have a public safety concern. It’s been brought to my attention that our law enforcement personnel are working extremely long shifts, double shifts, on multiple days during the week. That, to me, poses a public safety risk, because now you’ve got officers who have worked 16 hours, who got to make split-second life-or-death decisions and they’re exhausted, because they’re pulling doubles,” said East Orange resident Odell Roland from the audience on Tuesday, Dec. 12. “I don’t know the background or details of why, all of a sudden, these officers are … being required to work double shifts for multiple days but, in my opinion, that puts everybody at risk. When you’ve got an officer that’s been working 13 to 15 hours and now he’s got to respond to an emergency and now he’s got to make a life or death decision with impaired judgment, I mean, that’s going to lead to car accidents, that going to lead to mistreatment of the citizens of the community, and it’s going to lead to some fatalities at some point. Not wishing that on anybody, but I know what being up and working 16 to 20 hours armed can do to you.”

“So, if there is a situation that needs to be resolved because of head counts, then I think we need to make a concerted effort to get the appropriate number of personnel, so that we can properly man these shifts,” continued Roland. “And when these folks do their eight hours, their tour of duty is done and they’ve survived it because their objective is to go home at the end of their shift. That’s what every law enforcement personnel’s objective is: Survive their shifts and go home to their families at the end.”

Green has promised to make public safety a top priority in his new administration and he introduced the 50 new recruits to the East Orange Police Division and 25 new firefighters for the Fire Division at his inauguration on Monday, Jan. 1.

“With us today, we have 25 men and women, all East Orange residents, who are in their first weeks of training at the Fire Academy, where they will report to duty as early as Jan. 12,” said Green on Monday, Jan. 1. “We have 50 new recruits, all East Orange residents, who will be starting their training at the Police Academy in a few weeks. Please join me as we welcome our new recruits for the Fire Department and the Police Department.”

Epps and Settle said they are glad Green addressed the manpower shortages in the East Orange Fire Division and East Orange Police Division and are hopeful the new administration can implement positive policy and scheduling changes and reopen contract negotiations between the city and its unions.

Epps acknowledged that a lot of work is necessary on both sides to settle the disputes.

“It’s gotten better, but we still have a lack of personnel. People still being held over,” said Epps on Sunday, Feb. 11. “It continues to affect morale. We just recently lost three officers to the Irvington Police Division. Officers are exhausted, frustrated about being the lowest paid police department in Essex County. Contract negotiations have not resumed, as of yet.”

With regard to the 50 new East Orange Police Division recruits Green introduced at his inauguration, Epps said, “We already lost eight in the academy. Yes, it will help with hours and work schedules, once they graduate and get on the job.”

Calls to East Orange public information officer Connie Jackson to verify the manpower shortages alleged by union officials were not returned by press time this week.