Exclusive: Ex-Ocean Gate police chief broke department rules

By Andrew Ford and Kathleen Hopkins 

Published by the Asbury Park Press Feb. 2, 2017

OCEAN GATE – Before he retired, the former police chief was slapped with a 90-day suspension for “unfavorable conduct” related to his response to a car crash in which one of his officers struck a fire hydrant after attending a party at the chief’s house, according to interviews and documents obtained by the Asbury Park Press.

An internal affairs investigation by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office targeted Police Chief Reece J. Fisher, who retired Dec. 1 after 29 years on the force. The prosecutor’s office and Fisher reached a settlement concluding he violated the internal rules and regulations of the borough police department, according to the documents, which include a settlement agreement with Fisher, a borough resolution and a memo regarding the chief’s employment status. The documents did not detail the rules that were violated, or what was, or was not done, by the chief at the accident scene.

The crash caused at least $6,000 in damage to a fire hydrant, an expense borne by the borough of Pine Beach, according to Pine Beach Mayor Lawrence Cuneo, who said he had no details of the accident or the chief’s role in its aftermath.

Richard Gabriel, then a part-time, class II, special police officer in Ocean Gate, struck the hydrant at Prospect Avenue and Motor Road, according to the accident report. There was no alcohol or drug test given to Gabriel, and no charges filed, according to the report. The accident report also did not note any summonses issued.

It said there was heavy damage to the passenger-side front bumper of Gabriel’s car and damage below the passenger-side door. No injuries were reported, according to the accident report.

Gabriel worked for the Ocean Gate police force for a year, until Dec. 31, and was not reappointed, according to records obtained from Ocean Gate.

The chief paid off his 90-day suspension by forfeiting unused sick days before leaving his $150,000-a-year job.

The debacle began at 12:24 a.m. on May 15, six days after Fisher’s 50th birthday, when the chief responded to the single-car crash about five blocks from his Pine Beach home after hosting a party there. Fisher served as chief of both the Ocean Gate and Pine Beach police departments under a shared-services agreement.

Gabriel, then 24, had earlier been at the party at Fisher’s home, according to the documents.

Scott Ritchie, 57, who lives in the home closest to the fire hydrant, recalled the crash in an interview with the Press. He couldn’t remember the exact date but recalled hearing a screech and a bang that rattled his house about midnight.

Ritchie said he went outside in gym shorts and a t-shirt to find a car hit the fire hydrant. The driver of that car was speaking to a man in a Jeep. Ritchie said it appeared they knew each other. Ritchie said the driver of the car that crashed told him he had called the police. Ritchie said the driver had a belligerent attitude.

“I came out and he gave me, kind of like, ‘what are you looking at? Don’t worry about it,’” Ritchie said.

So Ritchie went back in his home.

“It was late and I didn’t need to be up,” he said.

Ritchie said the borough repaired the fire hydrant on June 10.

What transpired at the scene of the crash that night in late spring isn’t explained in the documents obtained by the Press, but those documents do show the prosecutor’s office declined to pursue criminal charges against Fisher.

Instead, the office reached a settlement with the chief, concluding that he “engaged in unfavorable conduct in violation of the Ocean Gate Police Department’s internal rules and regulations,” according to the borough resolution. The prosecutor’s office determined the matter should be resolved administratively and gave the borough an investigation report that was not shared with the Press.

Asked to comment, Al Della Fave, a spokesman for Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph D. Coronato, said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any internal affairs investigations.

“With regards to internal affairs investigations, I cannot speak to them,” Della Fave said. “It’s an administrative process; it’s not a criminal process.”

The borough of Ocean Gate conducted no independent investigation and didn’t charge the chief with unbecoming conduct, the settlement document shows. Instead, the borough and the chief agreed to “resolve any potential charges in a summary fashion without the necessity of formal charges and without the necessity of a hearing in order to avoid the uncertainly(sic), expense and burden of litigation, and in order to accommodate the desire of the (chief) to retire based on length of service.”

Fisher was paid $150,000 in 2016, and the cost of his salary and benefits was split evenly between Ocean Gate and Pine Beach, Ocean Gate Mayor Paul Kennedy has said. Fisher also retired Dec. 1 from his position with Pine Beach, which he had held for two years. Based on his final salary, the Press estimates Fisher would be eligible for a pension between $97,500 and $105,000.

The chief didn’t return calls seeking comment. His attorney, Timothy J. P. Quinlan, was away on a cruise and could not be reached for comment, according to Quinlan’s associate, Patricia Nigro, who said she was not qualified to speak on the matter. When a reporter visited the home on Prospect Avenue listed in public records as the chief’s, no car was in the driveway and nobody answered the door.

Gabriel, the officer involved in the crash, was hired on Jan. 1, 2016. He was paid $12.50 an hour, with no health or other fringe benefits. Gabriel served until Dec. 31 and wasn’t reappointed, according to information provided by the borough.

Reached at his home in Island Heights, Gabriel, now 25, declined to comment.

The Ocean Gate and Pine Beach police departments, each left without a chief, are now led by captains from the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office who are serving as acting chiefs.

Cuneo, Pine Beach’s mayor, denied any knowledge of an internal affairs investigation involving the chief or the accident, but he did say he was aware of damage to a fire hydrant on Motor Road.

“We didn’t have any internal affairs investigation going on,” Cuneo said.

“I wasn’t invited to the chief’s party,” Cuneo said. “I heard someone hit the fire hydrant. We had to get someone out to shut it off.”

When asked how much it cost to repair the damage to the fire department, Cuneo said, “$6,000 to $7,000, without having a bill in front of me.”

When asked for further details of the accident and any investigation into it or the police chief, Cuneo said, “That, I do not know. As far as anything in town, do I get involved in investigations? No.”

Recent attempts to reach Ocean Gate Mayor Paul Kennedy were unsuccessful. In a telephone interview last month about Fisher’s retirement, Kennedy was asked if the chief was pressured into retirement.

“Not to my knowledge,” Kennedy responded then. “He did his job and had enough. He took on a little more than he could handle.”

Kennedy said in that interview in mid-January that Fisher told him last summer he would definitely retire that same year.

“There’s no doubt I kept him on a couple of years longer than he wanted,” Kennedy said at the time.

With the shared-services agreement, “it was getting to be too much for him,” Kennedy said.

The mayor said in mid-January that he appointed Fisher Jan. 1 to a three-year term as deputy coordinator of Ocean Gate’s Office of Emergency Management, an unpaid position.

The Pine Beach Police Department has six sworn officers and a secretary, according to Cuneo. The Ocean Gate Police Department has a sergeant, a detective, five full-time patrol officers, three part-time patrol officers and an administrative assistant, according to Cuneo.

The chief expressed gratitude and a “bitter sweet” sentiment in a letter announcing his retirement to the Ocean Gate mayor and borough council dated Oct. 5, which was posted on the Ocean Gate Police Department’s Facebook page.

“I truly enjoy the friendships I have made along the way and (I’m) grateful for the positive changes I may have made in the lives of some,” Fisher wrote. “This has put an exclamation point on my career in Ocean Gate.”

Fisher began his career in law enforcement in Seaside Park in May 1986, according to another post on the department’s Facebook page. He joined Ocean Gate in November 1987. He worked as a detective, a training officer, and a traffic safety officer. He was promoted to sergeant in November 2004, then he became a lieutenant following the retirement of Chief Darryl Maffia in October 2006. Fisher was named chief in March 2007.

A memo regarding Fisher’s employment, dated Dec. 1, was sent to Fisher’s personnel file from Mayor Kennedy by James Gluck, the borough attorney. The memo notes the 90-day penalty “as a result of an off-duty breach of internal rules and regulations of the Ocean Gate Police Department,” the memo showed.

After satisfying that penalty, the chief retired in good standing, according to the memo.

The memo concluded: “The borough council formally thanked Chief Fisher on the record for his 29+ years of dedicated exceptional service to Ocean Gate and wished him well in his retirement.”

A post on the Ocean Gate police department Facebook page advertised a retirement celebration for Fisher at Martell’s Tiki Bar on Jan. 14. The $55 admission included dinner and a two-hour open bar.