NJ judge delays layoffs of Newark police officers

November 16, 2010 2:49:02 PM PST
A judge on Friday delayed the scheduled layoffs of more than 150 police officers in New Jersey's largest city for 10 days in a ruling he said was a difficult balancing act between public safety and fiscal responsibility.

Issued in a courtroom overflowing with police officers, state Superior Court Judge Kenneth Levy's decision was a qualified victory for the 167 officers who had faced losing their jobs at 5 p.m. Attorneys for the Fraternal Order of Police had sought a 45-day stay, while the city had sought to have the layoffs begin Friday.

"I'm not convinced by the city that a 10-day stay is going to result in economic and financial chaos," Levy said.

Newark FOP president Derrick Hatcher said some officers had already turned in their guns and badges this week but will get them back and return to duty.

Earlier Friday, David Fox, an attorney representing police, firefighter and white-collar unions in the lawsuit, said a settlement also had been reached to avoid layoffs for Newark firefighters. More than 90 had initially been targeted, but that number had been reduced recently to 24.

Fox also said a settlement was imminent between the city and more than 100 high-ranking police officers who faced demotion as part of the cost-cutting measures.

Mayor Cory Booker has blamed the layoffs on an $11 million gap in the city's budget. The lawsuit claims the city never engaged in meaningful discussions to find alternatives to the layoffs, a charge an attorney representing the city denied Friday.

In a statement, Booker's office said the ruling "will further delay impending layoffs and presents severe financial consequences to the taxpayers in our city." The statement also said city officials were "prepared to meet immediately in an effort to try to realize savings that will enable the city to meet its budgetary requirements."

Fox argued the layoffs would do irreparable harm to Newark, where violent crime decreased steadily from 2006 to 2009 but has risen this year. According to police department statistics, murders, shootings, rapes and robberies are up between nine and 16 percent from last year.

Fox also noted the danger to unarmed police officers who live in Newark and are recognizable to criminals who could target them for retaliation.

"I live in this city and I have to walk these streets," Officer Sherri Dillard said outside the court building. "I'm concerned about my safety and my family's safety."

Early during Friday's 2½-hour hearing, Levy appeared to be leaning toward allowing the layoffs to proceed when he grilled Fox on what would happen if a stay was granted and no agreement was reached.

"It is a significant public safety concern that has to be weighed against the certainty of an increasing budget deficit if a stay is granted," the judge said. "If you are not successful, there has to be a way to solve a much larger deficit problem" that might require even more layoffs, he added.

Attorney Danielle Torok, representing the city, argued that Newark's bond rating would suffer if the layoffs weren't allowed to proceed, jeopardizing the city's ability to sell bonds to close its budget gap.

City officials say the union has refused to agree to contract concessions. Hatcher said the city hasn't provided enough information to enable union officials to offer compromises.

"We can't be negotiating with ourselves," Hatcher said. "It's the city's responsibility to provide us with the information so we can move forward."

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