The mayor of Prichard’s top choice for the city’s next police chief is a curious appointment, according to some, on account of his acceptance of a six-figure pay cut and recent history of less-than positive headlines. But by many accounts Jerry Speziale is also a highly accomplished law enforcement leader and if the Prichard City Council approves an employment contract Oct. 4, he’ll take the helm of that city’s 50-plus officer department.
Speziale’s career began in the early ‘80s on foot patrol for the New York Police Department. During a shootout on his beat in the South Bronx, he was injured by gunfire. Later he worked as a detective on the narcotics squad, for a time working alongside future NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik. In the ‘90s, he became an undercover agent for Drug Enforcement Administration and traveled the country infiltrating international smuggling rings.
In 2001, after short stints as police chief in New Hope, Pa. and a ranking officer in the Bergen County, N.J. Sheriff’s Office, he was elected Sheriff of Passaic County, N.J., a job where he earned a reported $151,000 per year managing an office of about 700 officers and civilians. In June 2010, The Herald News in West Paterson, N.J. reported Speziale had raised more than $1 million in his re-election campaign, but less than two months later, he abruptly withdrew his candidacy, resigned immediately and accepted a $198,510-a-year job as deputy superintendent of public safety at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Within two years, Speziale was on the job hunt again, this time looking nationwide. In 2012, he was on the short list of candidates to become the chief of police in Port St. Lucie, Fla., a job offer that later sparked a complaint from Speziale over the hiring process. After initially being assured he was a lock for the job, the city eventually chose another candidate. Earlier this summer, while the administration in Prichard was mulling over his candidacy, Speziale was also being considered the same position in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Prichard’s police department has been without a permanent chief since late last year. In one of his first acts after being elected last October, Mayor Troy Ephriam chose not to renew an employment contract with the city’s previous chief, Jimmie Gardner. At the time, Gardner was earning $65,000 in the role. If Speziale was offered the same salary, it mean a pay cut of about $133,510.
When he accepted the high-paying job as the number-two law enforcement officer at the Port Authority, the New York Post reported the appointment was being investigated by federal authorities. Reportedly, since being shot in the line of duty, he earns a $51,000 annual disability pension from the NYPD. Speziale told Mobile’s Local 15 News that he wasn’t currently under investigation and in very brief remarks to Lagniappe, Ephriam said he was organizing a press conference later in the week but Speziale had been “thoroughly vetted.”
In 2001, when he was a candidate for the hotly contested election for sheriff of Passiac County, The Record newspaper of New Jersey editorialized him as an “abrasive, domineering individual” who gave his own campaign staff “heavy-handed treatment.”
Accusations from an election two years earlier even sparked a lawsuit against Speziale and others for assault, one that was eventually dismissed. Speziale won the 2001 election by less than one percent, but was re-elected twice prior to his appoint at the Port Authority.
Earlier this year, The Herald News reported a jury in Hackensack, N.J. awarded $75,000 to a Passaic County sheriff’s captain after they concluded the PCSO, under Speziale’s leadership, retaliated against her for blowing the whistle for improperly issuing police-type ID cards to civilians. Speziale was not held directly liable for the incident. Another recent lawsuit alleging that Speziale discriminated against a disabled employee was thrown out.
In Port St. Lucie, City Attorney Roger Orr said “there is no pending litigation” by Speziale in regards to his failed appointment, but he did launch a formal complaint with the state of Florida.
“He made the cut to the top three and by most accounts was very well liked by a lot of the people,” Orr said. “But the search process for one reason or another got derailed and I think that’s why he has hard feelings.”
Along with Ephriam, Speziale has the support of Prichard’s interim Police Chief Dorothy Ferrell.
“You’re going to have pros and cons and I won’t comment on that, but I like him as a person,” she said. “I’ve met him and I feel OK. He is a team player, but it will be premature to say anything negative or positive. For one, I do think he can guide the department and two, he shows leadership. My personal opinion is that he will be easy to work with.”
A 32-year veteran of the force, Ferrell said the city gets unfairly characterized as plagued with crime, when the real challenges for any police chief are the budget and staffing.
“Every municipality has the same problem with crime, but as soon as something happens in Prichard it’s blown completely out of the water. It’s not fair of the officers, who don’t ever get the credit but always get the criticism. What I’ve seen for number of years, personnel shortages have always been prevalent in the city because our revenue is low and the businesses have moved out. But other departments have shortages and budget crises and personnel crises. [Speziale] can identify with that.”