MORRISTOWN – Long before James Michael Gannon was elected in November 2016 to the prestigious political position of Morris County sheriff, he was a person who would be spotted on the fifth floor of the county Administration and Records building, guiding an elderly neighbor to the Surrogate’s Office to probate a will for a deceased relative.
Protecting the elderly and other vulnerable populations from scams and crimes of opportunity was cited by Gannon as a goal during a hard-fought campaign in the June 2016 Republican primary for the three-year term of sheriff. Opponent John Sierchio was favored by outgoing, 24-year GOP Sheriff Edward V. Rochford, but Gannon beat Sierchio and went on to defeat in the November general election Democrat Mark Dombrowski, a former county corrections officer who took a disability retirement and did not run a visible campaign.
What Gannon – a 54-year-old widower whose wife of 26 years, Lisa, died in 2010 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis – mostly talked about during the campaign was preparedness for a potential terrorist attack and curbing the opioid epidemic and addiction to heroin that is an acknowledged statewide crisis.
In his first 100 days in office – a period of time that Gannon said he would use to audit office needs and spending – Gannon has already moved from platitudes to a kept promise to help fight addiction by committing officers in his community services bureau to the Hope One program. Hope One, a project co-sponsored by the county Department of Human Services and the non-profit Morris County Center for Addiction Recovery Education and Success and other entities, is the logo on a van that has been re-purposed with drug forfeiture money and parks at locations around the county that are known to be frequented by homeless people and others vulnerable to addiction.
Hope One debuted about three weeks ago on the Morristown Green. Last week it parked in Montville – where at least eight deaths were attributed last year to opioid overdoses – and on Friday, it was parked for hours outside the First Baptist Church in Morristown, which leases space to the non-profit Our Promise agency, which runs a drop-in center for the homeless. Plainclothes sheriff’s officers, social workers and counselors for Hope One chat with anyone who approaches the van, offering information on services for the addicted.
“I didn’t think it would ramp up this quickly but we’re out there and making a lot of great contacts,” Gannon said. He added that he is so committed to the program, he will personally drive an addict to a treatment facility.
On June 4, Gannon plans to open the Hope Wing at the Morris County correctional facility in Morris Township. A jail pod, or unit, with about 50 beds will be designated for eligible inmates who want to voluntarily use their time confined to start overcoming addiction. Last year, the average stay for a Morris County jail inmate was 42 days and now is down to 32 days, Gannon said. And though that time is short, he said, the hours can be spent assisting the inmates with recovery options and steering them toward treatment programs.
“All these opioid issues, they’re all about public health. It’s an epidemic,” Gannon said during an interview with the Daily Record about his first 100 days in office.
“I think we have a duty to do this type of work. I’d also say that under all of this is a crime reduction program. That also is in the best interests of the community,” Gannon said. The program also was praised in a release by Morris County Prosecutor Fredric Knapp, whose office has pinpointed the curbing of opioid addiction as a priority.
“As addiction continues, crime will continue,” Gannon said.
Gannon said he is even considering getting the 528-bed jail licensed by the state – at least in part – as a treatment facility.
“Let’s test the system. Historically Morris County has done it right. We have been groundbreaking in the last few decades,” Gannon said.
Former county Freeholder John Sette, a longtime board member who is set to become chairman of the board of directors of DaytopNJ, an in-patient substance abuse facility in Mendham, said that Gannon is about action, not just talk. Gannon has visited DaytopNJ multiple times, Sette said.
“I think he’s doing a great job,” Sette said. “He also drives the oldest vehicle in the Sheriff’s Office fleet.”
Gannon uses a county-owned, 2007 Ford Explorer. He also kept a campaign promise to not be a “double-dipper,” freezing his annual $78,000 pension and taking only the $140,364 annual salary approved by the county freeholders.
“Promises made, promises kept,” Gannon said. He also opted to have two undersheriffs rather than the four he could have hired. He said he is about 20 days away from personally meeting every one of a total of about 300 sworn officers and civilian employees of the two Sheriff’s Office bureaus. He said he is astounded by the talent and commitment of the employees, including jail Warden Christopher Klein, whom he has chosen to keep in place after the 18-year officer was tapped by Rochford to be warden.
“I’m extremely impressed with the warden,” Gannon said. “He has a lot to do with the facility from an operational standpoint.”
There have been light-hearted moments too. On April 10, Gannon, Sheriff’s Officer Laura Bertelli and the Easter bunny – Morris County Sheriff’s CrimeStopper’s Commissioner Robert Ackerman – visited 70 children at Morristown Medical Center and passed out stuffed bunnies.
Gannon selected retired Mount Olive Police Chief Mark Spitzer to be undersheriff of the Bureau of Law Enforcement at the county courthouse and Alan J. Robinson to be undersheriff at the jail. Robinson is the longtime head of security for Atlantic Health Systems, which operates Morristown Medical Center, and has made numerous security upgrades at both the jail and courthouse – both obvious and subtle. New steel doors have been installed in some corridors of the courthouse to limit public access and the names of judges have been removed from the locked hallway doors that lead to their chambers.
“The challenge with the courthouse is the age,” Robinson said. “It was never intended when it was built to handle the number of people it handles. It’s a challenge. Our goal, our mission, is that people are safe.” The original part of the courthouse was built in 1827 and has been expanded through additions in the 1950s and 1970s.
“The sheriff wants to make sure, for example, that the elderly woman who’s there to probate a will is safe. She can park her car and she can walk in. The key here is that good security is seamless and usually not convenient.” (The freeholders have undertaken a $100,000 space needs study to determine future space needs for court and government offices in Morristown).
“The bottom line is nobody wants security until the bell rings…until there’s the issue of an active shooter, or a terrorist issue or an explosion,” Gannon said.
“It does happen in today’s world. So, we are here to ensure security of the judiciary, of the public at large, of the employees. And, I think we do a really good job through our professionalism. I would arguably say that my most important job is for that senior who comes in here, who maybe was defrauded, can give testimony without fear or intimidation,” Gannon said.
Multiple security measures at the court and government complex were undertaken under Rochford’s administration, including construction of a mailroom where all packages and letters are screened.
Freeholder William “Hank” Lyon said he is impressed by Gannon’s cooperative attitude and mindfulness of the cost of services on county taxpayers.
“I think he’s doing a spectacular job. He just launched Hope One and he’s been given back control of the jail. He’s in compliance with the economic package approved by the freeholders and he’s started MCSTAT,” Lyon said.
In December, the freeholders voted to return oversight of the county jail to Gannon as of Jan. 1. After more than a year of feuding with Rochford, the former sheriff, over overtime costs at the jail and large proposed salary increases for officers in both the bureaus of law enforcement and corrections, the freeholders voted in 2015 to put oversight of the correctional facility under the purview of county Administrator John Bonanni and the freeholders.
MCSTAT, which stands for Morris County Sheriff Trends and Analysis Team, is overseen by Gannon-hired Jane Recktenwald, a retired Morris County Prosecutor’s Office superior officer. Gannon says that Recktenwald practically works seven days a week and meets weekly with officers in the Bureau of Law Enforcement’s Criminal Investigation Section and jail commanders on crime trends. Data on where overdoses are occurring in the county has been a guide to where the Hope One van chooses to park, Gannon said.
Marty Kane, a member of the non-profit Lake Hopatcong Foundation, told the freeholders last week that he is grateful that Gannon plans to continue providing officers from Memorial Day to Labor Day to assist State Police in patrolling the state’s largest lake.
Gannon began preparing to take over as sheriff months before the November general election. After winning, he had a transition team assembled that included retired Bureau of Law Enforcement Undersheriff Jack Dempsey. Edmund Harnett, a retired deputy chief of the New York City Police Department, was consulted. In the last three months, he said, he has met with leaders of other counties, including Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose.
Gannon started his career with the Boonton Township Police Department in 1983 and later joined the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office in 1986, where he rose over two decades from the rank of detective to deputy chief of investigations. From November 2005 to December 2007, Gannon was on loan from the Prosecutor’s Office to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. He retired from the Prosecutor’s Office in December 2007 and worked for the Fortune 500 company Novartis, most recently as its global head of security risk. He left Novartis as of Dec. 31, 2015.
The outreach to other county, state and federal law enforcement leaders is in his nature but also a pragmatic endeavor, since Newark and other urban areas like Paterson are a short drive away from the county’s borders.
Gannon said he is evaluating how to best recruit and retain officers, which has been a problem with young officers who start out at a pay of about $45,000 leaving for better-paying jobs in municipalities. He said he hopes to attract more bilingual officers – though the office has officers who speak Spanish, Polish and Romanian. He said he has met with members of the Islamic community, offering guidance on how to take Civil Service exams if they want a career in law enforcement.
Gannon also credited longtime CIS supervisor Ed Crooker, whom he tapped as chief of the Bureau of Law Enforcement, and Richard Rose, a retired captain from the Prosecutor’s Office, who oversees internal affairs, forfeiture accounts, accreditation, and other financial duties. Crooker oversees the bureau’s CIS unit, which provides K-9, crime scene forensic expertise and bomb expertise to all 39 municipalities in the county.
“Last year, K-9 went out 512 times. The crime scene unit responded to over 1,000 calls, There’s some significant numbers,” Gannon said. “We take everything seriously. We respond with known intelligence. We make assessments on location to keep people safe.”
Gannon said he still is measuring the impact of criminal justice reform on the jail. Under the reforms, also known as bail reform, all arrested defendants as of Jan. 1 are screened to see if they should be detained pretrial in the jail or released pretrial under monitoring conditions that do not involve bail. Monetary bail as a condition of pretrial release no longer exists. The decision to keep high-risk people in the jail is made by a judge, in collaboration with prosecutors and defense attorneys who are guided by recommendations and risk assessments done by court pretrial services workers.
While most arrestees are now being released pretrial, the jail still houses daily the high-risk defendants and those serving county and municipal court sentences, and individuals arrested on contempt of court and probation violations. Gannon said he is open to discussing with other counties jail space needs and possible shared services agreements.
Gannon was unflappable as a recent invitee to a meeting at the Morris County Library hosted by the Morris County Tea Party and the Morris Patriots. He was asked to speak about his commitment to enforcing federal immigration law. He stressed that he adheres to 2007 directives from the state Attorney General’s Office that say victims of crime, witnesses to crime and complainants of crime are not penalized if they are undocumented and living in the United States. Undocumented people who are charged with crimes are another matter, and their immigration status is legally questioned, he said.
Gannon, who also was taken through a current inventory of 38,441 pieces of evidence that the Sheriff’s Office has to maintain for criminal investigation and trial purposes, said he also needs to address what he calls a lack of technology within the office. He wants to be paperless as much as possible, from the jail intake process and warrants through jail medical records.
He said he was thrilled by the process of undertaking a full public safety and business review of the office – which has a budget of about $26 million – when he was elected.
“In the transition meetings we were going over where we’re at, where we should be going. I found the transition at times to be spectacular, with subject matter experts around the table, sometimes 14, 16 people really taking a peek inside and making sure we were doing it right.”
He said he knows it’s “corny,” but the office has the people of Morris County at the top of its table of organization.
“We report to the people of Morris County. That’s who we report to here,” Gannon said.
Staff Writer Peggy Wright: 973-267-1142; pwright@GannettNJ.com.