What to Know
- Seventeen police officers say they've paid a price for their military service: allegedly bullied and retaliated against by higher-ups
- The police officers, through their attorney, have now put the City of Clifton on legal notice
- Twelve of the officers met with the I-Team at the VFW Hall in Clifton. Five others are actively deployed
Many have combat medals. One has a purple heart. They all have a dedicated commitment to serving their country and their community.
But 17 Clifton police officers, many with multiple overseas deployments, now say they’ve paid a price for their military service: allegedly bullied and retaliated against by higher-ups in their police department.
The cops, through their attorney, have now put the City of Clifton on legal notice, alleging "systemic harassment and discrimination and harassment by the city and its police department based on their [officers'] military service and/or their status as veterans." City officials deny any military discrimination.
Twelve of the officers met with the I-Team at the VFW Hall in Clifton. Five others are actively deployed.
"It’s like you’re torn between two families. You have your military family on one side and your police family on the other," Officer Wayne Stine said.
Officer Michael Zigarelli said he was threatened with termination by a supervisor, who has risen through the ranks.
“I have definitely been bullied, absolutely," he said. “I was told, ‘You’ve been warned. I’m going for termination. Don’t take these [military orders].’
"He stated that the military was my mistress, and the police department was my wife. And he stated that I had to choose," Zigarelli added.
Officer Anthony Diaz said, “It’s us or them. They knew what we were when they hired us.”
The officers said the tipping point came last November, when the 17 received letters ordering them to produce pay stubs for the past seven years for all paid military time, including active duty deployment.
The cops were given three weeks to comply or the city would dock their pay.
“I didn’t know if I would have money to pay my mortgage. This was completely out of nowhere," Officer Joel Muniz said.
Officer David Pereda said the officers have always complied with city requirements.
“We provide drill schedules, pay scales, military orders, anything they require ahead of time. Why now all of a sudden are we being punished?" he asked.
"To ask for a pay stub, you’re asking if they were really there, if you really served. If you really went to Afghanistan. If you really went to Iraq. It’s insulting," the officers’ attorney, Catherine Elston, said.
Clifton City Manager Dominick Villano told the I-Team he had no idea the letter had been sent out to the 17 officers, saying the review of records was initiated last fall by the police chief and carried out by the chief financial officer.
“That letter was a mistake, obviously,” Villano said. “It should never have been sent out.”
Villano said no officers had ever been directly contacted by the city to rectify “the mistake,” but added the PBA, the police union, was recently advised the city would not be pursuing repayment of any past military time.
When asked what he would say to the officers, Villano responded, “I apologize to them. I support our veterans.”
Villano also said he had no prior knowledge of an email — obtained by the I-Team — sent from the city attorney to the officers’ union and the union's attorney.
In the email, the city attorney proposed a “settlement" in which the city would “waive all money” that may be owed, but going forward, officers would be required to use vacation, accrued or compensatory time if they wanted to be paid for weekend training drills.
In addition, Clifton would no longer pay the difference between the police officers' military pay and city pay. In the past, according to a 2011 agreement, officers were not required to sacrifice earned pay leave, including vacation days, for drills.
Some officers said they have left the military because the conflict is too stressful.
“The way I looked at it was, if I want to be successful within this department, I have to close this chapter of my life. The military chapter,” Officer Alexander Zamora said.
When asked about the message to new recruits with military backgrounds, Officer Stine said, “Do your homework. The billboard seems to be, 'Our Department’s hiring. Vets need not apply.'"
Clifton Police Chief Mark Centurione declined the I-Team’s request for an interview, but through a spokesman gave this statement: “As a veteran myself, I am personally offended by the discourse that has transpired over this topic."
"The Clifton Police Department has never denied military leave to anyone at any time," he added. "Additionally, all employees have always received 100 percent of their due compensation. The details of how both salaries (police and military) are conjointly allocated, is currently in the process of being determined."