NORTH BERGEN - A former North Bergen police officer whose case was the subject of a Kane In Your Corner investigation may soon have his job back.
In a 10-page decision, an administrative law judge says North Bergen police wrongly terminated officer Ben Ortega because of a single argument with a superior. Judge Tiffany Williams concludes “Ortega was insubordinate,” but adds that “a penalty of termination was wholly inappropriate” given his “unblemished record.”
The ruling comes after another decision by the state’s Medical Review Board that found the town had no basis to declare Ortega unfit for duty.
Kane In Your Corner first reported on Ortega’s case in October 2012. Citing police reports, witness accounts and subsequent sworn testimony, News 12 New Jersey’s Walt Kane reported how a police captain scolded Ortega at the top of his lungs for not disposing of a street sign that had blown down. “He continually yelled that I was disobeying orders,” recalled Ortega, who said the captain kept screaming: “Why? Why? Why?” Ortega, who said he was simply waiting for disposal instructions from the New Jersey Department of Transportation, admitted he eventually raised his voice in response.
Following the argument, the department fired Ortega for being “disrespectful” and “insubordinate,” after first forcing him to visit the department psychiatrist, who found him “unfit for duty” and “a danger to himself and others.”
But a review of police records found that outside of that one argument with a single supervisor, Ortega had a flawless 13-year-record with the department, had been given a perfect evaluation by the same psychiatrist just months earlier, and had recently scored No. 1 in the department on the police sergeant’s test. Ortega and his attorney argued the department’s real motivation was to discredit him to avoid promoting a Latino officer.
The judge’s decision still must be upheld by the New Jersey Civil Service Commission. A spokesman for North Bergen says the town will appeal. However, reversals of administrative law and medical review decisions are considered rare.