Sen. Jeff Van Drew seeks “elite force” to patrol Atlantic City tourism district : News Room : The Van Drew Team for Change : Jeff Van Drew, Bob Andrzejczak and Bruce Land

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Sen. Jeff Van Drew seeks “elite force” to patrol Atlantic City tourism district

By JULIET FLETCHER Statehouse Bureau | Posted: Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A southern New Jersey Democrat wants to see Atlantic City’s entertainment area made safer by an “elite force” of state and local police officers who would patrol the city’s tourism district and protect visitors from crime.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, laid out a plan Tuesday to create a joint task force of state and local police and said he plans to introduce legislation Monday that would lead to more than 100 police officers patrolling the city’s tourism district.

The special unit would be under the leadership of New Jersey State Police, but consideration would also be given to hiring additional officers from the ranks of recently laid-off officers in Atlantic City, according to a copy of Van Drew’s legislation to create a “Joint Law Enforcement Taskforce in Atlantic City.”

Other lawmakers representing the region, Republican and Democratic, were critical of the proposed measure, which would be the first piece of introduced legislation to tie in with Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s plan to revitalize Atlantic City, the state’s only gambling resort.

“We need to keep a focus on putting together a complete package of ideas, not just one idea here and there,” Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic said.

He said he disagreed with giving away any jobs in Atlantic City law enforcement to state troopers, and said he had explained to Van Drew that he wanted several priorities tackled at once. “If you’re going to talk about safety, we can’t just say, let’s bring the State Police in,” he said. “We need to get tough on blight, landscaping empty blocks, if that’s what we’re stuck with for now, and thinking about what belongs in a tourist zone.”

Assemblyman Vincent Polistina, R-Atlantic, dismissed the idea that Atlantic City’s police needed State Police to keep the city safe.

“Atlantic City’s police force is capable of patrolling these streets – we do not need an elite force of Navy Seals patrolling the Boardwalk,” Polistina said.

Polistina said the governor’s office was already evaluating the cost of including State Police or the county Sheriff’s Office in boosting security in the tourism district.

Van Drew’s bill would take money that casinos have paid to subsidize racetracks and pour it instead into improving Atlantic City’s infrastructure. The bill states all money collected by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority should be given priority for Atlantic City projects, but does not rule out its use elsewhere.

“We want to see it very safe, very friendly, very clean,” Van Drew said of Atlantic City, comparing efforts to beat crime and overturn a perception of the city as dirty with the 1990s transformation of New York’s Times Square. “That’s our main obstacle to bringing confidence to visitors and to investors.”

Polistina questioned Van Drew’s plan to use money saved by reduced regulation of casinos to fund a joint policing effort.

“That money has been mentioned for city marketing,” Polistina said. “You can’t say, ‘It’ll also cover landscaping, it’ll also cover security.’ You can’t spend a dollar twice.”

Key Democrats from southern New Jersey have supported the governor’s proposal to create a “tourism district” within the resort, with most differing only on how it might be run. Republicans have taken an active role in shaping Christie’s plan into draft policy.

Christie proposes state involvement in the day-to-day management of the district. The districts boundaries are still unclear but would include the city’s casinos and Boardwalk, marina, downtown shopping district, and The Walk. The area would be overseen by a public-private partnership marrying representatives of the state and business heads.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, an influential voice in the southern region, said last month that he felt he and the governor were “very close” to reaching a compromise on a package of bills on the future of the state’s gaming, sports and entertainment assets.

But Van Drew’s bill arrives ahead of any details from the governor’s office on what basic measures Christie himself would choose to see.

Van Drew said he was aware his introduction of the legislation would beat Republicans to the punch on some of those answers, but insisted it would result in constructive discussion both inside and outside the governor’s office.

“If this morphs and merges into someone else’s bill, that’s fine. If it helps generate discussion, that’s fine, too,” he said. “There’s no pride of authorship here.”

A spokesman for Christie did not respond to repeated questions about Van Drew’s bill.

Atlantic City’s public-safety community reacted to the draft bill with cautious gratitude, but also with questions.

“We in Atlantic City will accept help from anyone,” Deputy Police Chief Ernest Jubilee said by phone. “Anything that makes our visitors feel safer, our residents feel much safer, we will accept.”

But after reviewing the key points of the bill, Jubilee said the description did not go far enough in explaining whom the task force’s numerous law-enforcement officers would report to.

“Who do they work for?” he asked. “Whether the task force is putting back money for those officers laid off in Atlantic City, and paying for those jobs, or whether it’s overseen by the state, that’s vague.”

Van Drew said he would listen for ways to improve on his first draft. “I’m sure there’s room for improvement on the details,” he said. “But I know I’m right that we need to act now to make things cleaner and safer. It’s a good foundation – every good building needs a strong foundation.”