Perhaps the most contentious county-wide race in years, the election of a county sheriff, will be decided on Nov. 2 when voters will be asked to decide between incumbent Sheriff Juan Perez – who is running as a Republican – and challenger Undersheriff Frank Schillari, who has received the blessing of the Hudson County Democratic Organization.
Schillari, a veteran of the United States Navy, a retired Secaucus police sergeant, and a member of the Sheriff’s Department since 1997, was backed by three of the most powerful mayors in Hudson County in last June’s primary, forcing Perez to seek the support of the much less powerful Republican Party.
Schillari served 11 years with the Secaucus police from 1968 to 1979. As undersheriff from 1997 to the present, he was assigned to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Narcotics Task Force, the F.B.I. Organized Crime Task Force, and the F.B.I. Hijack Squad.
“I am in-touch with the officers and the residents of the county and know how to protect the people in the parks and on the roads.” – Frank Schillari
Perez, a former elementary school teacher and later a member of the state police – from which he retired as a captain – and deputy director of the Jersey City Police Department, beat Sheriff Joseph Cassidy in the 2007 Democratic primary.
Why are you more qualified to serve as sheriff than your opponent?
Perez said his roots in education, law enforcement, and a number of civic programs give him the experience he believes is necessary for the job, and asked voters to compare his experience against his opponent’s.
“I can certainly document my entire law enforcement career and my accomplishments since 2008 in the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office,” he said.
Schillari said as a Hudson County undersheriff for the past 14 years, he prides himself on being a pro-active law enforcement leader in changing times.
“I am in touch with the officers and the residents of the county and know how to protect the people in the parks and on the roads,” he said, citing his knowledge of running day to day operations of the department as well as running some of the most successful department programs, reducing costs to taxpayers.
Vision for the future
Perez said he’s already accomplished much in his first term, claiming that when he took office in January 2008, the department was in shambles. It lacked computers, and existing equipment needed repair or to be junked. Sheriff’s officers were getting ill from faulty patrol car exhaust fumes.
“The morale of the officers was at a low time ebb,” Perez said, noting that as a team, he and the administration took action to solve these problems.
Officers’ salaries were brought on par with local police departments, reducing turnover. Other incentives were also offered. Women and minorities were actively recruited.
Perez said his term included establishing of a number of new programs, including the first canine unit using Homeland Security grants, and a number of technological innovations to help police officers in the field fight cyber crime. The department also upgraded existing programs and equipment, including those designed to help seniors. Patrols were also increased to cover county parks 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and other programs were brought on to deal with gang related crime.
Perez said he hopes to expand other programs in the future.
Schillari said he has already developed a detailed plan to restructure the entire Sheriff’s Office from top to bottom, which would include reassignment and changes in operational structure that will ensure the department runs more efficiently and effectively.
“With the current state of the economy, we are forced to do more with less. Making sure that tax dollars are utilized effectively will be a primary focus,” he said, noting that over the years, he has been instrumental in creating effective, cost-saving programs. He sees the future as working with private organizations to secure donations for such programs as the Sheriff’s Office’s “Bicycle Patrol Program,” and raised money to obtain bullet resistant vests. “Unfortunately, some of these worthwhile programs have been dormant under the current sheriff – and I intend to restore and expand them.”
What do you see as the most important duties of the department?
Perez said the department’s primary function is to protect the courts and judges, providing security at various locations, including the courts, probation, and child support offices.
“We also execute warrants from the Criminal and Family Courts and I have to state that since 2008 we have taken care of over 15,000 open warrants, both criminal and child support,” Perez said, noting that child support enforcement was among his priorities when he assumed office.
But under his reign, he said he also expanded enforcement of the speeding laws, DWI, and seat belt regulations.
“We have sent our officers into the schools to prevent enlistment into gangs and other violent circumstances,” he said.
Schillari said the Sheriff’s Office is tasked with protecting the parks, courts, and county administration buildings.
“At present, the officers have been pulled from the parks to do traffic stops and write tickets,” he said. “As sheriff, I will restore the protection of the county properties and look to expand our patrol to 24/7 in order to keep our communities safe.”
What is the relationship to other enforcement agencies?
Perez said under his watch, the department has developed “excellent and solid” working relationships with every police chief and department within Hudson County.
“Prior to our assuming office, the local police departments received little or no cooperation from the HCSO,” Perez said. “We have and will continue to assist when requested by local police departments. We have responded to hostage situations, major motor vehicle accidents, and major circumstances such as the plane down on the Hudson, a helicopter accident over the Hudson, and many other day to day operations.”
Schillari said, currently, municipalities are able to call the Sheriff’s Office for backup if they need assistance.
“But current economic conditions are straining police resources everywhere, and funding for towns to hire new officers is hard to come by,” he said. “My plan is to interact with the other agencies and municipalities to partner together and share resources. Using federal dollars that are available to our department, I plan to expand our capabilities to further assist municipal units as needed. I plan to take the Sheriff’s Office from land to sea, creating our first Marine Rescue Division through grant funding.”
How will you keep politics out of the department?
Perez said opportunities for training, advancement, and other commendations are based on merit, not politics – something not true prior to his taking over as sheriff.
“We have ensured that, first of all, overtime assignments are necessary and warranted and then further ensured that the overtime is distributed equally to all officers who are available to work the assignments,” Perez said.
Schillari said under his watch, there will be no political reprisals against any officer, regardless of which candidate they support in this election.
“As I have said in the past, politics should be kept out of the Sheriff’s Office,” Schillari said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.