Death of a motorcyclist in high speed chase spurred investigation and county takeover of the department
Palisades Interstate Parkway then-acting Chief of Police Michael Coppola clocks the speed of riders along the Henry Hudson Drive in Alpine in August 2013.
The Palisades Interstate Parkway Police chased people needlessly or without permission, misused police tactics and gave awards, like a $200 meal allowance, to officers who wrote the most tickets or made the most arrests, according to a report released Thursday by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.
The damning report paints the picture of a reckless police force that was bound by few rules as it worked its narrow territory along Bergen County’s eastern edge.
Chief Michael Coppola, the department leader, will take the brunt of the blame. He will be suspended for three months, starting Monday.
In the five-page document, Dennis Calo, the county’s acting prosecutor, urged the park commission to send Coppola to police management training when he returns.
Jim Hall, the executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, said commission members felt suspending Coppola was “appropriate based upon their review of all the information.”
He declined to answer when asked if Coppola will keep his chief’s post after the suspension ends.
And the rest of the 28-officer department was retrained by the Prosecutor’s Office on Attorney General policies regarding pursuits, use of force, bias crimes and racially influenced policing and internal affairs procedures, the report said.
Coppola did not respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon.
The county’s eight-month review, which began in November, found parkway police routinely broke Attorney General guidelines dictating when and how officers should conduct a high-speed chase. It also found the department often ignored state rules on how to properly investigate officers against whom allegations of misconduct had been filed.
“The BCPO review of PIPPD vehicle pursuits revealed numerous and flagrant violations of the Attorney General’s Pursuit Guidelines,” the report read. “There were no (internal affairs) investigations of any of these violations and no discipline of officers for any of the violations.”
Although a monitor from the Prosecutor’s Office will continue to oversee the department, the report’s issuance means the bulk of the county’s investigation is over.
Calo also said the parkway police should hire a law enforcement professional with management experience to update its policies and ensure the department adheres to them.
Based in Alpine, the department patrols an 11-mile stretch of the Palisades Interstate Parkway in New Jersey. The highway runs from the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee to the Bear Mountain Bridge in New York State, but the officers’ jurisdiction ends at the state line. The officers also guard the Palisades Interstate Park, a shard of cliffs and forests that runs along the Hudson for 12 miles between the New York State line and Fort Lee.
While the prosecutor’s office was conducting its review, Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, an Englewood Democrat and longtime parkway police critic, pressed Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal about whether the parkway police needed state oversight. At the time Grewal, the former Bergen County prosecutor who began the investigation into the parkway police, asked Johnson to wait for the prosecutor’s report to be released.
Johnson and Grewal could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
The review was spurred in part by the May 2017 death of Marlon Quiros, a 33-year-old East Harlem man who crashed his 2010 Yamaha motorcycle while trying to elude parkway police. The report said the pursuing officer hit speeds of more than 130 miles per hour as he chased Quiros and his alleged riding partner, Sheldon Lee.
As the Prosecutor’s Office investigated the deadly wreck, it found parkway police repeatedly violated a strict state guideline barring officers from engaging in high-speed pursuits unless the suspect committed certain criminal offenses, or posed an immediate danger to police or the public.
Parkway police broke that policy in 36 of the department’s 41 high-speed chases since January 2014, the report said. In 23 instances, officers reached or exceeded 100 miles per hour. And officers exceeded 120 miles per hour 13 times, the report said.
The report also said parkway police often misused police tactics by:
- Wrongly using a roadblock three times;
- Wrongly hitting a fleeing suspect’s car twice;
- Inappropriately using police cruisers to box in a suspect’s car twice;
- Pursued suspects into oncoming traffic four times;
- Wrongly pursued suspects on a parallel road 10 times;
- And used more than two police cars to pursue a suspect seven times without a supervisor’s approval.
On one occasion, 11 police cars were involved in a single pursuit, which reached speeds of more than 120 mph.
The report also detailed one instance of an officer hurtling through red lights at more than 100 miles per hour in pursuit of a fleeing suspect, who then lost control of their car and struck two parked vehicles. The speed limit on the road was 25 miles per hour, the report said.
That was one of eight times parkway police broke a policy declaring they should slow down and move cautiously through intersections, the report said.
The report also found parkway police routinely used the Internet to lure small-time drug dealers onto Palisades Interstate Park property to arrest them. One such operation led to the death of Denian Melo, a 21-year-old Bronx man who fell to his death as he fled police in July 2017.
Melo had run into the woods during a nighttime drug stop in Fort Lee Historic Park. But he tumbled down the Palisades cliffs in the darkness, and a parkway police officer found his body at dawn the next day near Henry Hudson Drive.
The Prosecutor’s Office has since ordered an end to the drug operations.
Four months after Melo’s death, Grewal placed the department under the supervision of Timothy Condon, a deputy chief from the Prosecutor’s Office.
Grewal was cagey about his reasons for the move, which is considered an extraordinary measure that lets prosecutors leap the local chain of command and take direct control of a given department.
But Hall, the director of the park commission, said it stemmed from a review of the police pursuits.
Condon has had a wide latitude as monitor, and is free to investigate, review and retrain the department on nearly any part of its operations.
The report also found issues with the parkway police’s internal affairs division, which handled potential criminal cases like they were simply rule infractions, the report said.
And it revealed a conflict of interest for Coppola, who owned the company that provided IT services to the parkway police. The chief did not charge for the work, but it was still a “potential severe conflict of interest, which demands that the connection be severed,” the report read.
The department also had an illegal incentive program that awarded officers with favorable parking spaces, newer police cars and a meal allowance of $200 for writing the most tickets or making the most arrests each month, the report said.
And the prosecutor took issue with Parkway Police Association, which the report says functioned as a labor union but represented itself as a charity to solicit public donations. The association also underreported its funds to the state Division of Consumer