Accident costs R.B. policeman his job

Accident costs R.B. policeman his job

Patrolman Ken Smith dismissed after driver’s license is revoked

By John burton

Staff Writer

After 14 years with the force, a veteran Red Bank police officer was fired by a 4-1 vote of the Borough Council.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the council adopted a resolution that dismissed Patrolman Kenneth Smith, citing his conviction for leaving the scene of a traffic accident and failure to report that accident while off duty.

The council also pointed to other infractions, alleging that Smith was insubordinate and disrespectful to superior officers and failed to report for duty on two occasions.

"This is the hardest decision I’ve made in 12 years," said council President Pasquale Menna, who also serves on the police committee and voted to dismiss Smith.

"Unfortunately we sit up here like an appellate court, and we have to go by the record," Menna said.

With the conviction for the motor vehicle offenses, Smith’s driving license was suspended for six months, and according to Richard T. O’Connor, the borough attorney, a valid license is one of the requirements for being a borough police officer.

O’Connor also noted that Smith had hearings with James M. Coleman, a retired judge who was hired by the borough as a hearing officer in this matter, and with Stanley J. Sickels, the borough administrator, who both recommended termination.

Quoting from Coleman’s findings on the matter, O’Connor said Smith "showed a pattern of disrespect of authority."

"I read the transcripts very carefully," said Councilwoman Florence Thompson. "We have to adhere to standards of behavior. And I found [from] reading the hearings, Officer Smith did not adhere to the standards."

Councilman Ivan Polonsky also voted to dismiss Smith, saying Coleman has the experience to make a judicious ruling and that Smith exhibited "a long history of bad behavior."

The vote to fire Smith was 4-to-1, with Councilman Robert J. Bifani recusing himself.

Bifani said later he recused himself because he had dated a woman who at one point had also dated Smith. Bifani said he wanted to avoid any perception of impropriety.

Mayor Edward J. McKenna Jr. also recused himself, even though the mayor only votes in case of a 3-3 tie.

McKenna said he bowed out because he was recently involved in a minor motor vehicle accident where he was accused of leaving the scene of the accident and failing to report the accident. The mayor was also charged in that incident with careless driving.

The council’s lone Republican, Jennifer A. Beck, cast the dissenting vote against the resolution to fire Smith.

"Maybe we have to give him [Smith] the benefit of the doubt as we have for others," Beck said.

"I am not supporting this resolution," Beck said. "The recommendation of termination is extreme."

While acknowledging she does not have the experience to make an alternative recommendation, Beck said the department should consider other alternatives including retraining.

"I do believe all police officers should be held to a higher standard," a visibly upset Smith said. "But all should be held to the same standard."

Smith, who is 38, said he was being singled out because of a personality clash with Police Chief James Clayton and Deputy Chief Peter DePonte.

Part of that clash stems from Smith’s role as a PBA delegate, and some contentious contract negotiations in the past, he said.

The motor vehicle offenses, Smith said, occurred from an incident that happened in June 1999.

According to Smith, he was driving by the intersection of Reckless Place and Maple Avenue at about 11 p.m. on a very rainy night. Smith said he had skidded and believed he hit a curb, losing a license plate.

Smith said no other vehicle or pedestrian was involved, and the only damage to his pickup truck was losing the plate.

The summons he received, noted he hit a traffic sign but Smith disputes it.

Smith also asserted the only reason the investigating officer issued the summons was because he was ordered to by superior officers.

Smith also contended that other officers have had their driving privileges revoked and had not received the same penalty.

He noted one officer had his license suspended for 18 months but remained on the force.

"Nobody in this room could have withstood the scrutiny that I underwent for the last 10 years," Smith said.

Smith also disputed Coleman’s findings, noting Coleman is paid for his services by the borough, which is an intrinsic conflict of interest.

"Knowing all that, do you think I was given a fair shot?" Smith asked the mayor and council.

Michael Furlong, a member of the borough’s department and president of PBA Local 39 that represents the department, said Smith’s loss of license stems from an incident that occurred while Smith was off duty.

"Officer Smith has not been charged at any time with anything to do with on-duty conduct," Furlong said.

"We sometimes put our lives on the line," Furlong said. "As a police officer and a fellow worker, there is no one better backing you up than Ken Smith."

Smith reiterated his belief that this is retribution from the chief and the deputy chief.

"This is from PBA conflicts," Smith said. "I’m being held to a different standard."

Smith, who is represented by Edward Bertucio, a Middletown attorney, said he will continue to fight to be reinstated.

"First and foremost, I want my job back," he said.

At press time Clayton and DePonte were unavailable for comment.