Council Expected to Shield Police Chief, Captain From Lawsuits
Police Chief Erik Rose and Captain Joseph Cook face multiple lawsuits filed by borough police officers who seek punitive damages for an array of complaints
In addition to being sued in their capacity as borough employees, both Rose and Cook also face personal suits from Sgt. Michael Messina and Lt. Robert Kneer that seek punitive damages for harassment and retaliatory tactics, among other things.
A fourth lawsuit, filed by 31-year Fair Lawn police veteran Hiram Taylor on Nov. 18, also names Rose and Cook as defendants, but is not included on Tuesday’s agenda.
Mayor Lisa Swain said that’s because borough manager Timothy Stafford only learned of the additional lawsuit Monday when it was reported in the Bergen Record. She said a vote to indemnify Rose and Cook from damages sought in Taylor’s lawsuit would not be voted on at Tuesday’s meeting but will likely be picked up at a later date.
If council votes to indemnify Rose and Cook, which councilwoman Jeanne Baratta said would require four of out five votes, the borough would then be responsible for covering any punitive damages awarded to the plaintiffs in each case.
Deputy Mayor Joe Tedeschi, the only council member who voted not to indemnify Rose and Cook in a straw poll at the Nov. 22 council work session, said he stands firmly behind his earlier vote.
Tedeschi said that while he supports defending every suit and individual borough employee to the fullest, there’s no need to indemnify Rose and Cook if they did nothing wrong, as they have claimed.
“We live by a legal system,” he said. “If elected officials don’t trust a legal system, if the officers who are getting indemnified don’t trust the legal system, we’re in a lot more trouble than we realized.”
Tedeschi said what Rose and Cook want is an insurance policy, and he doesn’t believe the taxpayers of Fair Lawn are obligated to provide one.
"We could be looking at close to a million dollars here when you bring all these cases together and add Officer Taylor’s case to it,” Tedeschi said. “I don’t believe that the taxpayers of Fair Lawn should be responsible for that.”
Baratta disagreed, saying that while she recognized there were larger issues brewing within the police department, it’s common practice for the borough to indemnify its employees.
“I think it’s something we have to do or else we would probably never able to hire a police chief or any type of manager,” she said. “If we tell these people we expect them to lead, to manage, and if something goes wrong and there’s a lawsuit and we back away from them and say, ‘Sorry, you’re on your own,’ how can we expect somebody to manage if they’re putting themselves out on a limb all the time?”
Detective David Boone, president of the Fair Lawn Policemen's Benevolent Association, said he had no problem with the council indemnifying Rose and Cook, as long as they had done nothing illegal.
He took issue, however, with what he believes has been council’s inability to deal with the underlying issues in the department that have compelled the lawsuits.
“What I have a problem with is that the borough leaders are not setting out to fix the real problems that are creating this lawsuit atmosphere,” Boone wrote in an email. “They need to get at the root of the problems and fix it.”
Tedeschi said he was well aware of the pattern of lawsuits, and wondered how much longer council could reasonably treat the officers as if they were the problem.
“How many times can people say with a straight face it’s the police officers?” he asked. “I believe that we’ve got good cops.”
“What are we saying to the rank-and-file of our police department when we indemnify people without even going through a process?” Tedeschi continued. “That your leadership can do whatever it wants and we won’t even investigate? We’ll just take it at face value? That’s not the way government is supposed to work.”
Baratta agreed that issues within the department needed to be addressed, but said she preferred to wait until the turn of the year.
“We have a new council coming in in January,” she said. “I’m sure that’ll be something that’s discussed. It has to be.”
Rose and Cook declined comment for this article.