Many like to say “politics and law enforcement don’t mix,” but the reality is they mix all the time.
That’s especially true when it comes to appointing county prosecutors. These may be law enforcement jobs, but politics determines who gets them. The individual is nominated by the governor, but nothing happens unless the individual is blessed by the state senators in the relevant county.
Sometimes nothing happens at all.
In Morris County, the five-year term of Prosecutor Fredric Knapp expired more than a year ago, but a replacement nominee has not been forthcoming. There’s nothing unusual about that; it happens time and time again in virtually every county
But events are making things interesting in Morris.
Nationally, we have the Black Lives Matter movement, which has focused on unequal treatment of blacks and minorities by law enforcement. There already had been a number of protest marches in the county when in late June, a young black man was found hanging from a tree in a Mendham Township park. This was ruled a suicide, but activists weren’t satisfied. They sent a letter to the state Attorney General asking him to investigate.
A short while later, another statement by pastor Sidney Williams of Bethel AME church in Morristown, called on Knapp to leave office – like now.
Among other things, Williams alleged that blacks in the county are 22 times more likely than whites to end up in state prison. People like to say numbers don’t lie, but this allegation came with no real supportive data.
No matter, the point was made.
Last week, Knapp did, in fact, say he was leaving as of Nov. 1, although his last day on the job will be Oct. 13. In a statement, Knapp said this was a simple retirement, which certainly seems plausible, As we said, Knapp’s term has been up for more than a year.
Monday morning found Williams giving the invocation at the county’s Overdose Awareness Day, an event put together by state Sen. Anthony M. Bucco.
Williams said before the ceremonies that he took the prosecutor at his word when he said he was retiring and not leaving because of any pressure.
He also said he was pleased with how things turned out. He faulted Knapp for doing a poor job reaching out to the clergy and other sectors of the Morris community.
Regarding the hanging death in the park, Williams said, “That would have been a perfect opportunity to engage the community, to engage the clergy.”
Williams said he hopes the new prosecutor will put a greater emphasis on reaching out than Knapp has done. He said that was the case with Robert Bianchi, the previous prosecutor.
Williams said building a rapport with the community should not be construed as being soft on crime.
“Bianchi wasn’t soft on crime,” he said.
Knapp wasn’t at the event, but chief assistant prosecutor Brad Seabury was. In contrast, Seabury praised Knapp for being ahead of the curve in ensuring that all police departments in the county are equipped with Narcan, an antidote to opioid overdose. Seabury said Narcan has helped reverse an estimated 850 overdoses since its inception.
This was a somber event with a number of parents who have lost children to addiction speaking of their pain. Opioid overdoses seem to be rising with the pandemic. Seabury said the county has seen 62 overdose deaths so far this year, which is ahead of the pace of the previous two years.
A tree was planted in memory of those whose lives have been lost. The ceremony took place near the recently-named Chris Christie drive just off Hanover Avenue in Morris Township. Christie was a strong advocate of substance abuse treatment – as opposed to incarceration – during his time in office.
A pertinent question is, who will the next Morris prosecutor be?
Various names have been thrown around over the last 12 months or so, but none has been nominated.
Sources said Monday that current thinking is to appoint an “interim” prosecutor for the time being. That could be accomplished without the necessity of nominating an individual and getting Senate confirmation. That person would not be someone now with the office.
But to maintain continuity, sources also said that Maggie Calderwood, who is now Chief Assistant Prosecutor, is in line to be the First Assistant, the number two position in the office.
Full Disclosure: The writer served as Public Information Officer for the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office for seven months in 2017.