MULLICA TOWNSHIP — Township Committee on Tuesday night tabled a resolution to promote Capt. Brian Zeck to acting chief after receiving questions from the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office, which recently placed a monitor in the department.
The Prosecutor’s Office is overseeing the transition of power in the Police Department as embattled Chief John Thompson prepares to retire Jan. 1. Both the township and Thompson requested help from the Prosecutor’s Office, each has said.
“We are tabling because we had an inquiry from the Prosecutor’s Office,” said Committeeman Larry Riffle, who is the head of public safety for the township. “We need time to discuss it.”
MULLICA TOWNSHIP — The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office is overseeing the Mullica Townshi…
Riffle said he could not comment further on the prosecutor’s inquiry until the committee is able to discuss it.
In a statement Tuesday night, Riffle said the township invited Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner to help with the transfer of power from Thompson to Zeck because “that transition of power has not been as orderly and efficient as anticipated,” and asked the Prosecutor’s Office to act as a trainer and mentor to Zeck as he prepares to take over the department. The township also asked the office to review police policies, procedures, rules and regulations that may need to be changed “for the proper and efficient operation of the Police Department.”
On Wednesday, township Solicitor CherylLynn Walters released to The Press a Sept. 5 letter from Tyner to township labor attorney John C. Hegarty that outlines the Prosecutor’s Office’s role in the Police Department.
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“As I indicated in our meeting last week, it is my intention to appoint Captain Kevin Hincks from my office to serve as a monitor of the operation of the Mullica Township Police Department ... beginning September 9, 2019, and ending December 31, 2019,” Tyner wrote.
He said Hincks would work with Thompson and Zeck to complete an audit of the evidence room, a manpower study, a survey of policies and procedures, an evaluation of the command structure and an evaluation of the deployment of manpower.
“Please understand that this is not a ‘takeover’ of the department, nor is it an expression of any lack of faith in the department as a whole,” Tyner wrote.
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He said all parties — the township, Thompson, Zeck and the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police — “have indicated that they welcome our assistance and will work cooperatively to make this a positive transition of leadership after Chief Thompson’s retirement becomes effective on January 1, 2020.”
The township and Police Department have been engaged in internal investigations of Thompson and disputes over contracts for Thompson and Zeck, who is Mayor Chris Silva’s son-in-law. In August, 10 of the department’s 11 members participated in a vote of no confidence in Thompson.
“The makeup of Township Committee and their relationship with Captain Zeck has created an unhealthy environment, which is unfortunate,” Thompson’s attorney, Philip Burnham, wrote recently in an email.
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Burnham said township officials had “opened and fueled bogus investigations against Chief Thompson, creating an almost toxic environment within the Police Department.”
Riffle took issue with that comment Tuesday night, reading a statement prepared by Hegarty.
“For Mr. Burnham to state that the failure to support the chief’s decision to terminate another officer was the catalyst for discord within the Police Department or that the committee created ‘an almost toxic environment with the Police Department’ is simply false,” Riffle read. “The goal, as evidenced by the steps taken by the township so far, has always been and remains to ensure the township has an efficient, cohesive and outstanding Police Department which is in full compliance and in lockstep with the chief law enforcement agency in Atlantic County.”
On Aug. 3, the committee voted at a special meeting to accept Thompson’s retirement as of Jan. 1. Committeewoman Kristi Hanselmann said at the time Thompson would work in an advisory capacity, meeting weekly with Zeck, to ensure a smooth transition of leadership.
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Silva for a time oversaw public safety in the township. The retired police officer gave up responsibility for public safety in June and has recused himself from votes affecting Thompson.
Some in town have felt he was trying to push Thompson out of the job to benefit Zeck.
Others have felt Thompson alienated his department and many in town last year with his failed attempt to dismiss veteran Officer Paul “P.J.” Sarraf, who has sleep apnea and other medical conditions that prevent him from working late night and overnight shifts.
Through much of this year, the township had been negotiating with Thompson, with the committee proposing and then pulling a vote on a settlement with him over an internal investigation. The committee then gave him a retroactive pay raise and six months of paid administrative leave with the understanding he would retire Jan. 1.
Thompson announced in June he was going on paid administrative leave for six months, then in July abruptly changed his mind and asked the committee to rescind his administrative leave, which it did.