Acting Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal has found no criminality in the actions of the county’s top civilian public safety official, who was suspended from his post last month after a report that he showed up at a traffic stop involving a suspected drunken driver and repeatedly interrupted as an officer made an arrest.
County Executive James Tedesco had asked Grewal to investigate the actions of Public Safety Director Ralph Rivera Jr. in the early morning of March 19.
Grewal said in a statement that he informed Tedesco on Monday that the prosecutor’s office “had completed its investigation and concluded that, based on the evidence available to date,” Rivera’s conduct in connection with the DWI arrest “did not rise to the level of criminality.”
The prosecutor said his office’s Confidential Investigations Unit conducted “a thorough investigation of this matter.”
It was not immediately clear how the prosecutor’s finding impacts Rivera’s future in the director’s post. When the matter was referred to Grewal, Tedesco said any additional action by the county would be determined following completion of the prosecutor's investigation.
“I appreciate the prosecutor’s thorough investigation of this matter,” Tedesco said in a statement Monday. “Now that the Prosecutor’s investigation is complete, I have directed the Bergen County Inspector General to work with the Prosecutor’s Office to obtain any information necessary to conduct a full internal review of the incident.”
Alicia D'Alessandro, county spokeswoman, said Rivera “remains suspended while the inspector general’s review is ongoing.” John Libretti, deputy county counsel, is inspector general and will be conducting the review, she said.
Grewal said the matter is now “a Bergen County employment matter” and referred all further questions to the county executive. He said given that Rivera is “not the executive of a Bergen County law enforcement agency, he is not subject to an internal affairs investigation” by the prosecutor’s office under the state Attorney General’s Internal Affairs Guidelines.
Neither Rivera, of Hackensack, or his attorney could be reached Monday night. He has continued to draw his $103,000 salary while suspended, which Tedesco has said is required by law. In addition to the director’s salary, Rivera collects an $86,104 annual pension from his 27 years with the State Police.
Rivera suspension came following a story by The Record quoting a report filed by the arresting officer. It said Rivera, a retired State Police major who became director of the Department of Public Safety last year, arrived at the traffic stop in Hackensack in an unmarked police vehicle and told the officer both about his past and present credentials and that the man he was about to arrest "was a friend of his."
Rivera “interrupted and distracted me” on “four separate occasions over the duration of my motor vehicle stop,” wrote Officer Andrew Kara, a member of the county Bureau of Police Services, which falls under Sheriff Michael Saudino. “At multiple points throughout my stop he kept asserting himself as, and referring to the title he currently holds,” Kara wrote in his arrest report on the incident. “I felt overwhelmed after learning Mr. Rivera’s identity.”
Kara's report and police videos were obtained by The Record through an Open Public Records Act request. On the video, a man that Kara ultimately identified as Rivera can be heard saying he is a retired state trooper and public safety director after being told by an officer: "We're a little busy — would you mind waiting over there for me?"
Rivera came to the post after a long law enforcement career that includes stints as a Bergen County undersheriff and Trenton's police director. As the director of public safety, he is administrative overseer of seven divisions key to the county’s law enforcement and safety apparatus. Police, fire and emergency medical services academies are under his aegis. So are the 911 emergency dispatch center, the medical examiner and Bergen’s consumer affairs, emergency management, weights and measures and safety and security operations.
The traffic stop took place around 3 a.m. after Kara pulled over a jeep in Hackensack he spotted allegedly traveling at a high rate of speed on Route 4; the driver, Francisco A. Almonte of Hackensack, failed to signal twice, Kara wrote in his report.
Almonte was cited for allegedly driving while intoxicated and failing to signal. He plead not guilty last month in Central Municipal Court at a first appearance and case management conference; a trial date was set for Aug. 4. Documents indicate he had a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.03 percent, below the legal limit of 0.08 percent, when tested at bureau headquarters in Paramus about an hour later.
Kara wrote that Almonte smelled of alcohol and showed clear signs of impairment during a field sobriety test: He failed to follow instructions and, for example, was unable to stand on one leg without putting his foot down and raising his hands for balance. He told Kara he had one beer hours earlier and that he was coming from an unnamed “social club” in Englewood.
The officer’s report says it was while he was interviewing Almonte and conducting the sobriety test that the man he later identified as Rivera arrived in a black unmarked police vehicle — a county-owned Ford Explorer — and tried to get his attention from across the street.
A second interruption allegedly came at the conclusion of the field test. Kara wrote he told the man that he and a backup officer were busy — and the man “replied in effect that he is a retired NJSP Trooper and the Law and Public Safety Director.” Before he could search Almonte for weapons, Kara said, he was again distracted by Rivera, who said he was a former county undersheriff and that Almonte was a friend.
At this point, he wrote, he still had not put Almonte in handcuffs because of Rivera interrupting and distracting him.
After Almonte was put in the back of the police car, Kara said, his attention was diverted yet again when he had to walk across the street to speak to Rivera in greater depth and Rivera again cited his background. A final disruption came when a tow-truck arrived for Almonte’s vehicle, which Rivera wanted to take himself. Kara objected: “I will not be willing to put my pension on the line,” he wrote.
Ultimately, Rivera drove Almonte’s wife to headquarters in Paramus in the county vehicle and they later left headquarters with the director, according to Kara’s report.
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