A new bill signed by former Gov. Christopher Christie just before he left office this month will disband the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at the state level, and empower local municipalities to directly pursue and prosecute animal cruelty cases. State Sen. and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco co-sponsored the bill.
Its passage comes three months after a scathing report from the state’s Commission of Investigation, claiming the NJSPCA was slow to respond to animal cruelty cases, wasted most of its monies on legal bills, and used political connections to bypass government oversight.
The commission also claimed the NJSPCA and its county charters became “havens for gun-carrying wannabe cops,” saying it allowed a third of its officers to carry firearms without authorization. Some officers went beyond their authoritative powers, conducting traffic stops, the report claimed.
New animal cruelty regulations
The new bill directs county prosecutors to establish animal cruelty task forces, responsible for animal welfare within their respective counties, and assign an animal cruelty prosecutor to their county task force.
Those prosecutors will assign or appoint one chief humane law enforcement officer for their respective counties.
The legislation also tasks each municipality within the counties to assign at least one municipal humane law enforcement officer.
Existing county SCPA’s will have to provide or locate shelter for animals in possession of the municipal officers.
Because Hudson County no longer has an SCPA, animals rescued in most North Hudson towns go to the New Jersey Humane Society shelter in West New York. Animals rescued in Jersey City and Hoboken go to the Liberty Humane Society shelter in Jersey City.
Secaucus operates its own animal shelter.
Fines collected from animal cruelty cases in municipal courts will now fully go to the municipality.
According to Geoffrey Santini, the animal control officer for North Bergen, West New York, Weehawken, Union City, Guttenberg and Bayonne, the NJSPCA kept half of the monies when he initiated cases and wrote summonses.
Previously, “If the NJSPCA came into the municipality and did an animal cruelty case, they kept 100 percent of the net from the courts,” said Santini, whose title will change to municipal humane law enforcement officer.
Santini claims that when the NJSPCA got notified of animal cruelty cases, they were very selective in responding. “If I get notified, by law, I have to respond, whether it’s a giant case or a little case,” Santini said.
“Why should my money go to an outside volunteer agency, when every municipality needs money right now? The monies are supposed to stay here.”
Santini also argues that municipal humane law enforcement officers are more familiar with their jurisdictions and can respond faster because of their centralized location.
“We know the area, we know the community,” he said. “How do you bring a guy from New Brunswick to come over here, if he responds, and investigate? If I get the call, within 30 minutes we’re at the scene.”
The fines municipalities collect from animal cruelty cases will go towards training for certified animal control officers and municipal humane law enforcement officers, in addition to other animal enforcement-related training for municipal employees.
“Are county prosecutor offices prepared to handle these things?” – Peter Franco
Cost to municipalities?
Though state officials see the bill as stopping a beleaguered state law enforcement agency, critics argue that transferring humane law enforcement to municipalities will place a financial strain on them and burden their police departments.
One such person is Peter Franco, a local government advocate from Bayonne, vocal about animal control on the peninsula. He finds the bill’s unanimous support in the Senate and Assembly suspicious: “These guys never agree on anything.”
Franco worries about the transition period of animal cruelty enforcement from the NJSPCA to counties. The bill will phase out the NJSPCA over the next six months.
“What’s going to happen in that window where we’re trying to switch over to the counties from the state?” Franco asked. “What’s going to happen to all those animal cruelty investigations that are going on? What’s going to happen to the people that are on trial, under investigation for animal abuse?”
He added, “Are county prosecutor offices prepared to handle these things? Do our municipal governments understand that they’re going to have to appoint a police officer as the humane law enforcement officer now, and the cost associated with those things?”
Franco’s concern also extends to more rural counties and their ability to handle livestock animal cruelty cases financially.
“It’s going to be expensive, because when you go to different counties in New Jersey, you may have an abundance of cat and dog cruelty cases in Hudson, but when you get down to Burlington County, where it’s farmland, you’re dealing with cows, you’re dealing with horses,” he said. “When you’re looking at housing these animals, you can’t fall back on the local level. Is the local level really prepared for this?”
When asked for comment on the SCI’s report on the NJSPCA, Franco admitted he’d not read it fully, but, “I’m not against any government agency forced to be accountable. But simply because you have an accountability issue does not mean you have to disband something. You need to hone in on the accountability.”
Liberty Humane Society Executive Director Irene Borngraeber originally responded to a reporter voicemail to set up an interview time, but did not respond to follow up calls.
A listed spokesperson for the NJSPCA did not respond to any emails or calls for comment.
Hannington Dia can be reached at email@example.com