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Friday, April 22, 2011

Judge Recommends Suspension For State Trooper

Judge recommends 7-month suspension for N.J. state trooper caught drinking, driving three times
The Star-Ledger by Chris Megerian - April 22, 2011

A judge has recommended a seven-month suspension for New Jersey State Police Trooper Sheila McKaig, who was caught drinking and driving but did not get a ticket.

HAMILTON TOWNSHIP (Atlantic County), NJ — An administrative law judge has recommended a seven-month suspension for state trooper Sheila McKaig, who was caught drinking and driving three times without receiving a single ticket. The Star-Ledger first reported last year on McKaig’s alcohol-related stops, which occurred within a three-month period in 2008. But the judge’s report, issued Wednesday, also reveals how local police repeatedly declined to ticket her, and how McKaig’s superiors initially didn’t punish her. State Police officials only launched an investigation after an anonymous letter alleging a cover-up began circulating at the division’s headquarters, according to the report written by Administrative Law Judge Ronald Reba. Officials filed disciplinary charges against McKaig the following year but have not yet suspended her. "By being involved in numerous traffic stops, and in particular three alcohol-related stops, (McKaig) conducted herself in a manner that failed to maintain the dignity and integrity of her position," Reba wrote. The report cites testimony from police officers in Atlantic County’s Hamilton Township that shows they suspected McKaig was driving under the influence after each motor vehicle stop. But they never tested her blood-alcohol level, arrested her, or issued any tickets, the report said. In April 2008, when McKaig was pulled over a second time, Officer James Longo told her "this is the second time, you know, three strikes is no good," the report said. But two weeks later she was pulled over yet again by another Hamilton Township officer. A police incident report filed by Officer Ronald Gorneau said McKaig identified herself as a trooper and admitted she had drunk "a lot." Although Gorneau later testified that he and other officers knew McKaig’s driving history, he drove her back to the police station and didn’t test her for alcohol despite her bloodshot eyes or the smell on her breath, the report said. Within two hours, troopers were dispatched from the Woodbine State Police station, where McKaig worked, to pick her up, the report said. But McKaig avoided more than just legal trouble, according to Reba’s report, which draws on testimony from officers involved. After Hamilton Township police informed a superior officer of the alcohol-related incidents, two State Police lieutenants did not press disciplinary charges. Lt. Robert Watkins, now the station commander in Buena Vista, and Lt. John Peacock, who retired last September, instead met with McKaig to say "they were disappointed with her actions" and referred her to counseling, the report said. "I had nothing to base any disciplinary action on," Peacock, who was a regional commander in South Jersey, said today in an interview with The Star-Ledger. "There was no action taken by Hamilton Township, other than, ‘Hey, can you come pick her up because we don’t think she’s doing so well.’ " He added, "The reason they contacted us was out of concern for a fellow law enforcement officer." Peacock said he was absolved of wrongdoing after an internal investigation. Watkins, who testified that "State Police rules and regulations did not apply" in McKaig’s case, said during the administrative hearing that his handling of the situation was under investigation, the report said. A State Police spokesman declined comment except to say the matter is being reviewed. McKaig is on duty patrolling the Atlantic City Expressway. Reba did not recommend firing McKaig because she sought counseling and is considered a "model trooper." "Apart from a six-day suspension in 2006 because of a domestic issue in which alcohol was a factor, respondent essentially has an unblemished disciplinary record during her career," he wrote. The ruling now goes to State Police Supt. Rick Fuentes, who makes the final decision on disciplinary matters. Dave Jones, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, said the union will review the judge’s decision and cautioned there may be "a lot of smoke but no fire." He said troopers don’t turn a blind eye to issues with drinking and driving. "We don’t have a lot of these issues," he said. "And I know of none that haven’t been reported." McKaig’s lawyer did not respond to messages today. Neither did Hamilton Township police, nor the president of the State Troopers Superior Officers Association, which represents lieutenants. Peacock, who praised McKaig as "honest and forthright," suggested that officials were trying to make an example of her with disciplinary charges. "Motor vehicle stops happen all the time," he said. "Officers use discretion all the time." Peacock said alcoholism is a disease that should be handled medically. But Dennis Jay Kenney, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said when she’s behind the wheel of a car, it becomes a public safety issue. "That’s why she should have been arrested just like anyone else," he said. Kenney said officials should take action against local police who didn’t ticket McKaig. "If they have grounds to suspend her, I would say they have grounds for disciplinary action against officers who chose not to enforce the law," he said.

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