Morristown’s acting police chief, Darnell Richardson, always wanted to be a cop. But he says he never thought much about rank.
Come Saturday, however, he will have something to ponder. Police Chief Pete Demnitz, embroiled in controversy, is retiring after a 36-year career.
“I’m happy to stay on, if it’s for the best interest of the town,” Richardson said after Tuesday’s council meeting.
If his position becomes permanent, Richardson would be the town’s first African American chief of police.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to work with him every day. He’s a born leader,” said town Public Safety Director Michael Corcoran Jr.
At Tuesday’s brief meeting, which ended moments before a tornado warning advised residents to take cover, council members unanimously approved a $52.5 million municipal budget that will hike annual property taxes by $69 for the average homeowner.
The council also unanimously approved the Morristown Partnership’s $1.26 million budget, plus measures to delay tear-downs of structures (by requiring historic preservation reviews) and to increase parking times at most parking meters from 90 minutes to two hours.
And the council okayed non-member daily rates at the Burnham Park pool: Adult residents will pay $15, and children, $12, when space allows.
The police situation was not discussed. Town officials have been tight-lipped about Demnitz’ departure from his $158,000 job. When pressed for details after the meeting, Administrator Jillian Barrick said the chief “is retiring in good standing on June 1.”
Asked whether Demnitz’ severance includes town legal representation for him–he is being sued by Capt. Michael Buckley–Barrick said “we are obligated to provide representation of the chief in his official capacity.”
As for Demnitz’ successor, Barrick said a Civil Service test must be offered. Presently, there is no active list for chief candidates. The town must decide whether to make the test available only to captains, or to lieutenants, too, Barrick said.
August will mark Richardson’s 30th anniversary with the police bureau. The 52-year old town native (Morristown High, ’86) has served in virtually every role on the force–foot patrols, bike patrols, detective- and services divisions–en route to his promotion to captain in 2015.
At that ceremony, Chief Demnitz praised Richardson’s local roots and his stake in the community.
“We get to know the community. Not only is important for our police officers, but it’s especially important for our commanders that are going to lead,” Demnitz said at the time. As patrol commander, the chief explained, Richardson essentially was “in charge of every uniformed officer you see on the street. It’s a huge responsibility.”
Last December, Mayor Tim Dougherty’s administration named Richardson acting chief to sub for Demnitz, who was placed on paid leave without public explanation.
Officer Keith Hudson successfully sued the town last year, arguing he was demoted for blowing the whistle on Demnitz’ side jobs. The town settled with Hudson for $1.15 million.
This year, Buckley sued Demnitz, the police force and the town, accusing the chief of defaming him, and the town of failing to prevent the chief from retaliating against him for testifying for Hudson.
Buckley’s suit also contends he suffered “public humiliation” when the town chose Richardson as acting chief–a role Buckley had filled in the past.
Amidst this tumultuous backdrop, the town hired its first public safety director last fall to oversee police, fire and emergency management operations.
“I haven’t followed the suit with Captain Buckley and Chief Demnitz,” said Richardson, noting he’s been busy doing two jobs: Acting chief, and commander of the patrol division.
Richardson also serves as a volunteer fireman in Morris Township, where he lives with his wife Nikki and sons Noah and Conor.
While serving as chief has brought added responsibilities, Richardson said he enjoys having the authority to make decisions. He said he’s not contemplating retirement just yet.
“For me, as a kid, I always wanted to be a police officer,” Richardson said.