Does Sussex County have a politicized police force?

The Republican primary to nominate a candidate for the open 24th District Assembly seat being vacated by Alison Littell McHose had a lot of strange elements to it.  None stranger was candidate Marie Bilik's attempts to politicize the police departments of Sussex County.

It began a few days before the start of the Memorial Day weekend, when Bilik campaign chairman Molly Whilesmith sent an email to police chiefs asking them to mobilize their departments in opposition to Freeholder Gail Phoebus, a candidate for Assembly.  At a Blairstown debate, Phoebus had suggested that some police chiefs received excessively large payouts and that some police officers were able to access their pension benefits too early. 

Both positions are perfectly defensible -- particularly in a Republican primary.  In 2013, Assemblyman Gary Chiusano -- then a candidate for Surrogate -- took a much harder line on police pensions and went on to crush a well-funded primary opponent by 20 percentage points. 

But Freeholder Phoebus went to great lengths to claw back her statements.  She personally apologized to individual police chiefs and officers, and she sent out at least two written apologies that we know of.  But apparently, it wasn't enough.  Embracing the idea that having an enemy is better than having a friend, some of the cops went all out to stick it up the poop-chute.  Perhaps they're just those kind of guys.

Watchdog has learned that Whilesmith -- who is a paid representative of Concord Engineering/ Energy, as well as an elected Sparta councilwoman -- organized a meeting of seven police chiefs, for the purpose of coordinating campaign operations against Phoebus.  At a PBA dinner held in Sparta, Bilik was the only candidate invited.  And there was a Facebook campaign organized to get police to vote for Bilik, along with Phoebus running mate Parker Space.  They even made a video ad to aid their efforts.

We've learned that the Phoebus camp was somewhat perplexed by the behavior of the predominately male members, refusing to accept the apology of a woman, more determined to make threats and carry them out.  One memo, obtained by Watchdog, referenced polling numbers on this issue and closed with the term "Assmonkeys", whatever that means.

In the end, this campaign appears to have helped Freeholder Phoebus, whose numbers were much closer to those of incumbent Parker Space than expected.  This is evident when compared to the last contested primary for an open Assembly seat, in 2007.

2007                                                                          2015

McHose (incumbent)        9,600 (35.5%)         Space (incumbent)            6,533 (40%)

Chiusano                               7,705 (28.5%)         Phoebus                    6,048 (37%)

Zellman                                 5,701 (21%)             Bilik                            1,696 (10%)

Woods                                   3,950 (14.5%)         Orr                             2,010 (12%)

Memo to the people who jumped on this scheme:  If you are going to publicly screw an elected official, don't come back with numbers like these.  Apparently however, Phoebus is a genuine friend of the police and a significant contributor to their causes.  She has stated that she looks forward to representing them in Trenton. 

That's a pity, as far as Watchdog is concerned.  We can't say we agree with her.

The bigger issue here is the politicization of the police.  Do we really want police chiefs behaving like party bosses?  Do we really want ward heelers with guns?  Instead of sobriety checks, how about traffic stops to check your voter ID?  Does anybody think having political cops is a good idea?

If the police want to become politicians, they should leave the force and run for office.  Law enforcement and the judiciary should be party blind if they want to maintain their integrity and the public's trust.