TRENTON – State senators grilled the head of the New Jersey State Police over the chaotic early December day at the Statehouse after the vaccine-or-test access policy went into effect, didn’t get answers – but nevertheless advanced his nomination to become the permanent superintendent.

Col. Patrick Callahan has been the acting superintendent of the State Police for more than four years, initially selected by then-Gov. Chris Christie, but hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate. Gov. Phil Murphy nominated him in May 2018, but until Thursday the Warren County resident never got a hearing.

While there were questions about racial profiling and the diversity of the State Police force, the most common theme was how troopers handled the Dec. 2 standoff, in which a group of Republicans were blocked from entering the Assembly for nearly 15 minutes, then allowed in without explanation.

“It is not appropriate for police to take a political position on policies. It is our job to enforce those policies,” Callahan said.

'How seriously we take the security here'

The State Capitol Joint Management Commission adopted a rule effective Dec. 1 that requires anyone entering the Statehouse complex, including lawmakers, to show proof of being fully vaccinated against COVID or a recent negative COVID test.

Republicans have gone to court to fight it, but the appellate court hearing isn’t until April. Some refused to comply at the Dec. 2 voting session, leading to an hours-long delay in the Assembly, where Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, decried “a colossal failure in terms of security.”

“I think since Dec. 2, what you see at those five entrances to the Statehouse, that external and internal screening process, shows again how seriously we take the security here,” Callahan told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Overkill?

Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-Somerset, asked if the stepped-up security is being overdone at Statehouse entrances.

“Do you think it’s an overkill to have five troopers standing there checking us?” Bateman said. “I just think in light of what’s going on in the state, it just seems like an overkill where maybe those individuals could be doing their jobs elsewhere.”

“I think it just reinforces what I stated in the beginning of how seriously we take the security of the Statehouse,” Callahan said. “And from a preparedness standpoint, I think it’s critical. I think it’s the appropriate amount, senator.”

Trust the process

At least five times, Callahan declined to answer questions from lawmakers, citing an internal investigation announced earlier this week. He wouldn’t even acknowledge his own participation in discussing the security plan ahead of time with acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck, as Bruck said happened in a public letter.

“As it is an active internal investigation, and I’m the ultimate disciplinarian, it would be inappropriate for me to comment,” Callahan said. “I ask that we trust and respect that internal proceeding and will certainly look forward to the opportunity once that’s released to sit and discuss those, certainly publicly, in order to answer any unanswered questions.”

“I would like nothing more than to sit here and talk about every single aspect of that, but as I stated initially, we need to respect that process,” he said.

“I’m not going to comment on the internal investigation,” he said. “I know that’s not what anybody on this committee wants to hear, and it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for me to be in this position.”

'You're stonewalling us'

Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said he had “a little bit of a problem” that the internal investigation was announced Monday, after Callahan’s confirmation hearing was scheduled.

“In my mind, it’s not to tell us what happened on the 2nd,” Sweeney said. He later added: “They don’t want to answer this question, and it’s troubling.”

“With all due respect, colonel,” Sweeney said, “I think you’re stonewalling us.”

Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, the judiciary committee chairman, who is expected to become the Senate president in mid-January, said there are security matters that need to be addressed before the completion of the internal investigation and Callahan’s return to discuss it before the Legislature.

“I appreciate your word and your willingness to work forward to a resolution that might make us more comfortable and more secure in our surroundings,” Scutari said. “As you know, it’s a different day coming into year 2022, and I think that we need to all be on the same page when it comes to security of this building and ensuring that democracy runs.”

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Sen. Mike Testa, R-Cumberland, questioned Callahan about a section of the state constitution that reads: “Members of the Senate and General Assembly shall, in all cases except treason and high misdemeanor, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the sitting of their respective houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any statement, speech or debate in either house or at any meeting of a legislative committee, they shall not be questioned in any other place.”

“How do you see the plain and unambiguous language of our New Jersey constitution gel with the directive that was imposed upon the New Jersey State Police to ask each and every legislator for either a vaccine card or a negative test prior to entering the Statehouse?” Testa asked.

Callahan said that issue is being litigated.

“And I respect and defer to the outcome of the decision in that process, and regardless of what that decision is, we will – again, as I stated in the beginning – not take a political position but enforce the policy,” he said. “And whatever that challenge is determined as, we will enforce that.”

In the end, the committee voted unanimously to advance Callahan's nomination to the full Senate. Democrats said the totality of his career shouldn't be outweighed by their disappointment that he evaded their questions.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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