N.J. police officials suing AG over state takeover of department
Chief Englebert Ribeiro and acting Police Director Mirza Bulur said the state takeover “exceeds the bounds of their statutory and constitutional authority”
By S.P. Sullivan
PATERSON, N.J. — Sidelined top brass at the Paterson police are suing New Jersey’s attorney general, saying he overstepped his authority when he took over the scandal-plagued city police department.
The lawsuit, if successful, could upend state control of a 300-plus officer department in New Jersey’s third largest city.
Paterson police have been under state supervision since March, when New Jersey Attorney General Matthew Platkin — citing a “crisis of confidence” — superseded local officials and installed a hand-picked officer in charge to lead the department.
The move followed several years of slow-boiling controversy, including an FBI corruption probe and protests over police shootings and deaths in custody.
New Jersey’s constitution bestows unique powers to the state attorney general, giving them direct supervision of every county prosecutor and police chief in the state.
But in a complaint filed in Passaic County Superior Court, Chief Englebert Ribeiro and acting Police Director Mirza “Mark” Bulur contend the state takeover “exceeds the bounds of their statutory and constitutional authority.”
An attorney for Ribeiro and Bulur did not immediately return a request for comment. A spokeswoman for Platkin said the suit was “as unfortunate as it is meritless.”
“The Attorney General’s authority to supersede local law enforcement agencies is well established,” said the spokeswoman, Sharon Lauchaire, in an email. “And given the history in Paterson, the need to do so was clear.”
State officials also contend the takeover is working, with violent crime down significantly this summer compared to the same time last year. They point to changes implemented by Isa Abbassi, a former NYPD chief Platkin appointed as Paterson’s interim top cop, as reason for the declining crime rates.
Platkin’s office sharply criticized the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, saying they have been “notably absent” from community events meant to improve relations between the department and the public they serve, as well as “the members of the City’s administration behind this litigation.”
While not a plaintiff in the suit, Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, said in a statement Monday he was an “interested party.”
“Not a single state in our country allows for an attorney general to take over a local police department,” Sayegh said. “As the duly elected mayor of Paterson, we need to know if this action is even legal and that’s why I am an interested party in this lawsuit.”
“Prior to the Attorney General’s takeover, we were making dramatic changes in the police department,” Sayegh said.
The mayor contended he took “bold action” by firing a police chief, noting that his replacement, Ribeiro, “only had a few weeks to transform the department” before he was sidelined by the state.
“Moreover, we were implementing serious and meaningful change, which was interrupted by the takeover,” he said.
Ribeiro, a longtime veteran of the department, was sworn in just three weeks prior to the state takeover. He was transferred to the state Police Training Commission and kept his salary, state officials said.
The lawsuit identifies Bulur as the “acting” public safety director but does not name the current police director, Jerry Speziale, as a plaintiff.
Speziale has not spoken publicly about the state takeover and both city and state officials have said little about his role since. He did not return a message seeking comment.
Sayegh said Bulur, a deputy to Speziale, serves in an acting capacity when Speziale is away from the city. He is currently out attending to a family matter and the mayor could not say why the lawsuit only lists Bulur as a plaintiff.
City and state officials had previously been cordial as they navigated the early months of the state takeover. The mayor even often referred to Abbassi as “my partner in crime.”
But the coming legal battle complicates that already fraught relationship.
Platkin’s spokeswoman said the suit “put the interests of two individuals over the good of the city and its people.”
“It is just the latest example in a long list of reasons that these specific individuals, and the administration that supports them, were — and remain — unfit to run the Paterson Police Department.”