Morristown’s first public safety director, who is poised for council approval this Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, brings impressive credentials. He will need them.
Michael Corcoran Jr., former public safety director in Rye, N.Y., and before that, deputy police chief in West Orange, will have to sort out a Morristown police force riven by a lawsuit that pitted the chief against his subordinates and got the town slapped with $1.7 million in damages (reduced last month to just over $1 million).
Mayor Tim Dougherty insists the new position–which also includes oversight of the fire department and emergency management operations– is not meant to curb Police Chief Pete Demnitz’s authority after an officer convinced a jury he was demoted for blowing the whistle on the chief’s freelance gigs. The chief, a veteran of 35 years on the force, later sounded off about a captain whose testimony contradicted his own.
“Not at all,” Dougherty said on Monday. “I’ve been talking about a public safety director for at least five years. It’s the right time.”
A coordinated approach is needed, the Mayor said, to respond to increasingly violent and damaging storms–a motorist was killed by a downed tree this summer–and to accommodate the massive marches and demonstrations that are becoming commonplace in Morristown, the Morris County seat.
Demnitz and Fire Chief Robert Flanagan could not be reached for comment. Nor could Corcoran.
Corcoran’s salary and other job details will be made public on Tuesday, said town Administrator Jillian Barrick.
‘A CONSUMMATE PROFESSIONAL’
“I feel Morristown will be very well pleased” with Corcoran, said West Orange Police Chief James Abbott. “He’s a consummate professional, well trained and educated to perform at every level.”
A Navy veteran, Corcoran holds a law degree from New York Law School, an undergrad degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and certification in criminal justice/law enforcement administration from the FBI National Academy.
He also has studied labor relations at Rutgers and leadership at West Point, trained investigators as an adjunct professor at the Stockton University Institute of Public Safety and Security, and run a tutoring business for police seeking promotions.
In West Orange, where he served from April 1990 until his retirement in February 2016, Corcoran’s duties ranged from patrol and criminal investigations to internal affairs and deputy chief of operations.
“I always assigned him to all the thankless jobs where you need someone competent and capable to see that it’s done right,” said Abbott, his former chief.
Corcoran left to become police commissioner in Rye, NY, a Westchester County community with a population (about 16,000) comparable in size to Morristown’s.
In less than a year, he was promoted from Rye’s equivalent of police chief to public safety commissioner.
His new responsibilities included righting a paid and volunteer fire department that been cited for violations by the state labor department’s Public Employee and Safety Health Bureau, according to press accounts.
“I think he did a great job for the city. He was always available when we needed him. He set up new policies and procedures for the police and fire department… he left the city in a better place,” said Rye City Manager Marcus Serrano.
Corcoran quit the $180,000 post abruptly in June.
COPS IN SCHOOLS, COMBATING OPIOID EPIDEMIC
“It was a personal issue, and he decided to leave,” said Serrano, who declined to elaborate. Rye Mayor Josh Cohn did not respond to requests for comment.
The Rye mayoralty and council in November flipped from Republican to Democratic control, leaving only one elected official from the group that approved Corcoran’s hiring.
“In the fire department, he ruffled some feathers. They were not happy with him making the changes he was supposed to make,” said former Rye Councilman Terry McCartney, a fan of Corcoran.
McCartney said Corcoran may have taken some heat over New York State’s residency requirement. The council that hired Corcoran allowed him to live in a local apartment on weekdays and return to his family in New Jersey on weekends, he said.
During his time in Rye, Corcoran ramped up efforts to combat opioid addiction–which had claimed several young lives–by encouraging police to “adopt” schools. Students welcomed the regular interaction with officers, said McCartney, an attorney and Marine Corps veteran.
“The message needs to get out: Police are here to help you. We’re your friends, we’re supportive of you,” Corcoran told a TV interviewer in 2016.
“Often times when people encounter police officers, it can be a negative type of interaction, whether they’re stopped for a motor vehicle violation, or they’re called to someone’s house for an emergency,” he continued. “I told our officers, be friendly. Go out, build your fan base. You see people outside, mowing their lawn, wave, say hello, say hi. Engage people.”
At the same time, Corcoran “enforced our laws on under-aged drinking and parties, and held kids accountable,” McCartney said. Corcoran also created maternity policies for female officers, according to officials.
“Morale of the police department was phenomenal when he was there. It was more organized, more professional. Responsiveness to the public…went way up under him,” said McCartney, describing Corcoran as a leader and a “great administrator.”
More than 30 people applied for the Morristown position, and 11 were interviewed, said Dougherty, who declined to discuss specifics about Corcoran prior to the council vote.
In July, Morristown Councilwoman Alison Deeb cast the only vote against creation of the public safety directorship. She did not comment when asked how she plans to vote on Tuesday.
Council members Robert Iannaccone and Stefan Armington were among council members who interviewed Corcoran.
“It was a good interview,” said Iannaccone, who described the directorship as “an effort not only to improve operations of the police department, but also an effort to coordinate all emergency services.”
Iannaccone praised Chief Demnitz, an expert on crowd control and a proponent of community policing, while saying he looks forward to advances in police data management.
Noting Corcoran’s “very impressive resume,” Armington said he should “add value to the police and fire departments.”
At a community meeting last week, Mayor Dougherty told residents the state prohibits mayors from running police departments. But he expressed hopes Corcoran will institute 12-hour police shifts, to boost coverage and reduce overtime. South Orange has had success with these longer shifts, he said.
Dougherty credited Demnitz with helping lower crime rates in town. Now, he anticipates policies and practices to enable the police department to attain accreditation by law enforcement review agencies.
“Hopefully, the new police director will take a good look at how the police department is operating… when your police department is accredited, it really gives you a look at what your police department needs,” the Mayor said.
“He may come back … and he may need a few more officers, or he may need less. To get accredited is crucial, so that the police department is operating at its highest level. And that’s our goal.”