After controversies, N.J. town appoints 1st African-American police director

Posted Apr 30, 2020

Quovella M. Spruill, a former chief of detectives at the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, is the new public safety director in Franklin Township, becoming the first African-American woman to ever lead the police department in Somerset County’s most populous municipality.

Spruill, a Newark native, is accustomed to the accolade: She became the first African-American woman to hold the position of chief of detectives at the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.

“I feel great,” she said in a phone interview with NJ Advance Media Thursday. “I feel just like I did in Essex County. We’ll prove all the naysayers wrong.”

Spruill was appointed director on April 20 after “an extensive search” that lasted several months, Franklin Township Manager Robert G. Vornlocker said in a statement.

“Director Spruill was clearly the best choice for the position,” Vornlocker said. “Spruill brings a new perspective and a wealth of knowledge to the department. I am confident that she will provide a clear and positive direction to the agency.”

In an interview, Spruill said she’s joining the department “at a really critical time,” given the coronavirus, which has already killed at least 75 residents in Franklin.

“I feel like it’s a great time to come off the sidelines and help because I think our community as a whole needs to come together, and make sure we keep everyone safe so we can get back to some sort of normalcy,” she said.

Spruill takes over a 100-member police force that has been plagued with controversy in recent years. The Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office took control of the department after its previous top two officials — Chief Richard Grammar and Capt. Gregory Borlan — abruptly resigned on July 1, 2019. The prosecutor’s office will relinquish control next week, Spruill said.

The resignations came after an officer overdosed while on-duty and as the prosecutor’s office was reviewing what township officials said was a “substantial abuse” of an obscure time-off policy that allowed dozens of officers to take paid days off for union business.

In a statement regarding the union abuse, the township said creating a public safety director position would “enhance public oversight of the department.”

Spruill wouldn’t comment on the union time issue. She said “there is a contract just like there is in every police department. All of that is under review. The prosecutors have done their job and we’re going to follow policies and procedures.”

The department has also had internal turmoil when it comes to the racial makeup of the rank-and-file.

In 2017, Sgt. Dennis Hopson, a 22-year veteran of the Franklin Police Department, filed a discrimination lawsuit alleging the department had a history of passing over non-white officers for promotions. From 2007 to 2017, the department had only hired three African-American officers compared to 29 white officers, the lawsuit said. Only one black officer, the lawsuit said, had reached the level of lieutenant in 20 years — Edward Coleman, who had retired in 1998.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28% of Franklin’s 65,834 population is black, while 44% is white. Fourteen percent is Hispanic.

The township also typically has the most homicides on a yearly basis out of any of Somerset County’s 21 municipalities. In February, township and law enforcement officials held a town hall meeting with residents after there were three shootings in two days. At the meeting, one resident said her elderly neighbor fears leaving the home because of gun violence.

The Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries Jr., a community leader and the long-time pastor at First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Franklin, said he’s “pleased” to see Spruill as the new leader of the department.

“She’s a very intelligent woman,” Soaries said. “You don’t get police executives with engineering degrees often.

“She has the toughness a law enforcement leader needs, but also has the sensitivity to community issues that can make her effective,” Soaries continued. “I think she will be a great bridge builder for law enforcement in Franklin, which is still working through its culture — both the internal culture and police-community culture.”

Spruill retired two years ago after spending 20 years in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, including 13 years as a command-level officer. During her tenure as chief of detectives, she oversaw 150 detectives, supervisory officers and support staff in one of the busiest prosecutor’s offices in the state. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a master’s degree from Seton Hall University.

When Spruill became the chief of detectives, she replaced Anthony Ambrose, who left the prosecutor’s office to become the public safety director in Newark. Spruill, Ambrose said, was his “de-facto chief of staff” while he was at the prosecutor’s office.

“She had a passion for what she did,” he told NJ Advance Media in a phone interview Thursday. “She’s a very smart person. She has great integrity and empathy. When I left, it was a no-brainer to make her the chief.”

Spruill, in her interview with NJ Advance Media, said she has felt welcome by the members of the Franklin police department.

“Franklin Township, the police department, is looking for a change in leadership,” she said. “And what I’m getting is a warm welcome and a breath of fresh air.”

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