Freeholders vote for expenditures including tear gas for county SWAT team, sheriff’s office

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The Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders voted in favor of expenditures for the Hudson County Regional SWAT Team, which is overseen by the prosecutor’s office, and the sheriff’s office – including tear gas.

“The defensive equipment technology is the tear gas grenades, in the exact same dollar amount that were voted down last month as well as previously. I’m confused disturbed to continue to see these purchases pop right back up,” said Eleana Little, of NJ-08 for Progress and the Hudson County Progressive Alliance.

She was one of about two dozen speakers who spoke out against more equipment for county law enforcement, which included $10,993.73 for the tear gas (between the two agencies) and seven new SUVs for the sheriff’s office at a cost of $219,089.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, tear gas is banned in warfare, as of the Geneva Protocol: it targets the lungs and it shown to make people more vulnerable to respiratory diseases.”

Little also was one of several, including Jersey City Freeholder Bill O’Dea (D-2), who said that tear gas had been used inappropriately during peaceful protests around the country this summer – in particular one incident with President Donald Trump (R), though the White House has disputed that notion.

One of the larger purchases up for a vote last night was to install a wifi network at the county jail in Kearny for a price of $1,684,799.20.

Jail Director Ron Edwards said that the cost was high because extra measures would need to be taken to install the wifi at the reinforced walls of the facility, as well as that nearly 700 cells would not to be accommodated.

He also indicated that the purpose would be to allow inmates to have access to telemedicine, alcoholic anonymous meetings, and other forms of virtual treatment during the coronavirus pandemic.

The only potential cost would be if movies were made available for purchase, but that is yet to be determined, Edwards stated over Zoom.

While four freeholders and a handful of county employees still met in chambers, the majority of the meeting was conducted remotely – including a lengthy public comment session that saw three local police chiefs weigh in as many activists asked for spending on law enforcement to be scaled back and therefore voted down.

“Deadly force has many negative connotation and far reaching negative effects … so it’s imperative that we give officers every possible option to remedy the situation prior to using deadly force,” explained Bayonne Police Chief Robert Geisler.

“Why did we have a worst case scenario plan? Because what you saw during the week of that protest was police precincts being burned down around the country, officers being shot at, molotov cocktails being thrown at officers – nothing that resembled a peaceful protest – and we had to be ready for that,” Hoboken Police Chief Kenneth Ferrante noted about the Black Live Matter protest in the Mile Square City that had an estimated 10,000 people.

Despite the huge turnout, there was no violence committed against police officers and just one arrest was made in relation to the protest.

“The less than lethal ammunition was ready to be used – if it was needed. Less than lethal ammo is about saving lives: it is not deadly force. It is to be used in place of deadly force.”

Jeff Lewkowitz, a member of the North Jersey Democratic Socialists of America, said while he believed installing wifi at the jail was well intentioned, the county would be better off closing the jail all together, also voicing frustration with the electeds not listening to the public.

“Read the room, right? How many times do you have to hear that budgets are moral documents, right? You have socialists on this call telling you to cut back on big government spending, sheesh, redirect it to the community in regenerative ways.”

Despite many speaking out against, law enforcement leaders continued to rationalize why these were very reasonable purchases that are actually a benefit to the public.

” … I hope we can agree here that less lethal weapons can prevent and minimize death and injuries,” said North Bergen Police Chief Peter Fasilis, who added that the Regional SWAT Task Force has a rigorous selection process where only the most physically and mentally capable officers are chosen.

After some, including Kearny Freeholder Al Cifelli (D-9), began to question why both the officers of the county sheriff and prosecutor have a SWAT team.

According to Hudson County Sheriff Frank Schillari, a state mandate requires county sheriff’s offices to have a task force as a primary means to protect the court house and their staff.

“You see what’s going on around the country, court houses: people are going in, there’s active shooters, so we have to be prepared and train – just like the regional SWAT team.”

Schillari added that his SWAT unit has been around for 17 years, has 30 members, and trains alongside other agencies like the state police and FBI.

He also said that tear gas expires and therefore needs to be replaced.

“Tear gas, less lethal ammunition, it expires, we have to keep replacing it and we use it when we’re training … to be prepared to protect the public.”

O’Dea questioned when the last time was that the HCSO had to use tear gas, outside of a training exercise, Schillari responded “to my knowledge, never.”

During the public portion of the meeting, Amy Torres, of the Hudson County Progressive Alliance, asked if Schillari, or anyone else, could name a recent shooting at a court house to no avail.

The tear gas expenditures were approved by a vote of 6-3, with Cifelli, O’Dea, and Jersey City Freeholder Joel Torres (D-4) voting no, with the jail wifi resolution passing 7-1(1), with Cifelli abstaining and Hoboken Freeholder Anthony Romano (D-5) voting no.

Romano, a retired Hoboken police captain, said after casting his votes that he believed the non-lethal weapons being allocated to the SWAT unit and sheriff’s office were more like pepper spray than tear gas.

Furthermore, the purchase of the sheriff’s vehicles was approved unanimously.

Therefore, Freeholder Chair Anthony Vainieri (D-8) effectively made good on his promise prior to the meeting to never vote against funding for law enforcement, occasionally jousting with speakers who were against those measures.

Cifelli explained afterwards that he didn’t want his votes to be construed as being as anti-law enforcement, instead he thought they reflected that difficult choices had to be made – as always.

He also pointed out that he could not get assurances that law enforcement wouldn’t use tear gas on peaceful protesters.

“All I asked was that this equipment be not used in a civil protest scenario. I was told by law enforcement that they could not guarantee that.”

The entire meeting streamed live on our Facebook page and can be viewed below:

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