Mail-order cocaine and a top cop’s arrest spark new calls to kill a police department

Michael Coppola has been a firefighter, an EMT and a police officer. He was at ground zero during the terror attacks of 9/11.

Now he is something he never could have imagined — he is a criminal defendant, in connection with an apparent sting operation by the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office that led to his arrest Thursday in a bizarre scheme to buy cocaine online. And at least one state legislator called the case against the 43-year-old chief of the Palisades Interstate Parkway Police yet one more reason for abolishing the police force he heads.

Coppola was stopped shortly after picking up a package from a Little Falls post office box near his home that prosecutors said was sent in response to what Coppola thought was an online buy for illicit drugs.

Inside was a plastic bag filled with “imitation cocaine,” according to an affidavit filed in Bergen County Central Municipal Court.

Assistant Prosecutor Elizabeth Rebein would not say what sparked the Coppola investigation or offer any other details beyond what was in the affidavit. He was charged with attempting to possess cocaine and possession of drug paraphernalia — referring to the plastic bag — and is scheduled to make a court appearance Aug. 22.

Police Chief Michael Coppola. (Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office via AP)

Coppola could not be reached for comment. Phone numbers tied to his home address were disconnected, and he did not immediately appear to have an attorney.

Meanwhile, James Hall, executive director of the Palisades Interstate Parkway Commission, who had no prior knowledge of the criminal investigation or the arrest of the police chief, said Friday that the board will be taking action, but would not say what is being considered.

“Since this is a pending personnel action that requires certain notifications, I cannot say more than all options would be available,” Hall said.

Coppola, who joined the police department in 1996, earned a $135,000 salary, according to pension records. He was named chief in 2014 after starting his career as a dispatcher before rising to a sergeant, detective lieutenant and officer-in-charge of the agency.

His arrest came in the wake of seemingly increasing tensions between the small police department that is responsible for patrolling an 11-mile stretch of highway between the George Washington Bridge and the New York state line, as well as guarding the Palisades Interstate Park along the Hudson River.

Last month, a scathing report launched by former Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir Grewal, who now serves as the state’s attorney general, harshly criticized the department for a wide range of violations of state laws and policing guidelines, such as the use of incentives that rewarded officers who logged the most arrests and tickets, including better parking spots, newer patrol vehicles and a meal allowance paid by Palisades Interstate Park Commission funds, according to the prosecutor’s review.

The review of the department’s police pursuits between January 2014 and August 2017 found the department’s officers engaged in 41 chases that involved various violations of state guidelines, according to the report. It also revealed a company owned by Coppola provided technology services for his department in what investigators called a potential severe conflict of interest. While he did not profit from the arrangement, the prosecutor’s office ordered the chief to halt the practice.

The chief was suspended from duty following the release of the report.

Others, meanwhile, say the problems of the department and arrest of the chief this week raise new questions over the need for the police department.

Monmouth County Republican Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, who led the 2014 repeal of red light cameras in the state and is a frequent critic of the widespread use of traffic tickets to bring in revenues to financially starved municipalities, said there is no reason for Palisades Interstate Parkway police to exist.

“There is no need for a force to patrol an 11-mile stretch of roadway,” he declared. “Other departments can cover that area with no increase in manpower. Let’s be done with it.”

O’Scanlon said the current legal troubles of Coppola aside, the leadership of the department “has been fatally flawed” for years.

“The ticket quotas. The rewards for writing tickets. That should not go on in any police department, let alone one that is not needed. Every revelation I read screams at me that it’s time to dissolve this force. There is no reason for it. It’s victimizing the people it is supposed to be protecting,” he said.

Ted Sherman may be reached at tsherman@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL. Facebook: @TedSherman.reporter. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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