New Jersey State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes has reportedly issued a memo detailing how troopers should deal with alcohol-related accidents involving their own. That's a good idea, provided it doesn't include the phrase "sleep it off."
Fuentes acted in the wake of the latest report that troopers showed uncharacteristic forgiveness toward a colleague who might have run afoul of the laws that apply to the rest of us.
The Star-Ledger of Newark reported last week that prosecutors have charged State Police Detective Sgt. William Billingham in a crash that seriously injured a Philadelphia man on I-295 in Camden County. Billingham, the brother of Camden County's sheriff, used a fictitious undercover name that kept his true identity concealed from the victim of the crash for some time, according to the newspaper.
The trooper's lawyer has said his client did nothing wrong. But prosecutors say they believe Billingham was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the predawn rear-end crash. We can never be sure of that, though, because the charges were filed some two years after the accident occurred, and Billingham was apparently never tested for alcohol.
That would sound familiar to the administrative law judge who recently recommended that Trooper Sheila McKaig be suspended for seven months. Over the course of 14 months in 2007 and 2008, an off-duty McKaig was pulled over by police in Atlantic County 10 times, and she acknowledged she had been drinking on three of those occasions, according to the Star-Ledger. But she never got so much as a traffic ticket, and her suspension - if Fuentes signs off on it - would be her first penalty at the hands of her bosses.
Agency supervisors were reportedly well-acquainted with both cases. Information about the I-295 crash, which occurred while Billingham was off duty but driving an unmarked police car, was circulated within the department. McKaig, meanwhile, was retrieved by fellow troopers following one of her encounters with local police, after which the department referred her for counseling. But both episodes would have remained shrouded behind the blue curtain if not for anonymous whistle-blowers and the press.
To this day, Fuentes and the rest of his administration have yet to offer much in the way of official contrition for either of these embarrassments. On the contrary, at least in the McKaig case, supervisors have shamelessly made excuses for the trooper's conduct and theirs.
Fuentes' order last week calls for more thorough reviews and testing for alcohol when troopers are involved in wrecks. That's a start, but the fact that the superintendent had to issue such a directive suggests a grave failure on his part. Subjecting troopers to the same laws as everyone else should be a matter of implicit principle, especially for an agency with the checkered recent history of the New Jersey State Police.