Passaic City officials and the director of a Jewish ambulance service are addressing new tensions that have erupted following a clash with police who attempted to tow an ambulance this week. On Sunday, resident David Kaplan, 25, who founded the local branch of Hatzolah, an international ambulance corps staffed by volunteers in many Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, confronted police who had ticketed an ambulance parked the wrong way on Reid Avenue. The site is around the corner from Hatzolah headquarters at 243 Van Houten Ave.
A group of people congregated in front of the ambulance about 11 a.m. as five police cars and a tow truck arrived at the scene, Kaplan said. The tow-truck operator was unable to move the ambulance because of its size, he said.
“It’s unheard of to tow an ambulance in any city,” Kaplan said Tuesday. “It sort of leads us to believe there’s selective enforcement going on.”
Calls to Police Chief Daniel Paton and Deputy Chief Matthew La Paz were not returned Tuesday. Police spokesman Detective Andrew White said they had left the office and that he would not supply a copy of the police report.
“There was a traffic violation and a summons was issued. That’s all I can comment on,” White said.
Mayor Samuel Rivera said he was on the scene Sunday and thought the ambulance volunteers acted “belligerently” and that perhaps police responded too harshly.
“They were going to be towed because they were parked in a dangerous position,” Rivera said.
Rivera said he met Monday with Kaplan and Paton to try to resolve friction between police and the volunteers.
“I’m trying to work with them. My goal is for them to work with our [the city’s] EMS,” Rivera said, adding that part of the frustration with Hatzolah goes back more than two years.
In 2004, the city tried to shut down the ambulance service because it did not comply with a city ordinance requiring certification by the police director. The state, however, does not require certification of volunteer emergency medical service squads. A proposal to amend the city ordinance requiring certification was scheduled to be heard Tuesday night.
In addition, the city has offered Hatzolah use of city EMS headquarters to park Hatzolah’s ambulances, but Hatzolah has rejected the city’s offer, Rivera said.
“They say they like to have ambulances parked closer to the Jewish community,” Rivera said.
Kaplan said that since his Hatzolah Emergency Medical Services of North Jersey began operating in 2003, he has had no problem with police and that generally, the 30 volunteers have had a good relationship with city officials. But last fall, he said, police began ticketing Hatzolah’s three ambulances, with roughly 14 tickets received for improper parking during the season.
Ticketing stopped, Kaplan said, but started again recently, with seven or eight tickets issued in the past two weeks. The matters have yet to be resolved in court and Hatzolah hopes the city might waive the penalties if a solution can be reached.
The incident is the latest in the city’s parking problems involving the 3rd Ward, where many Orthodox Jews live. An outcry has erupted among residents over the enforcement of alternate-side parking regulations in Third Ward Memorial Park, where traffic cops didn’t previously ticket or tow vehicles. Hundreds of residents submitted a petition against towing to the City Council during a meeting this month.
Kaplan said that volunteers keep the ambulances close to their homes to save the time it takes to get to a call, rotating stewardship of the ambulances among them.
Kaplan said he believes that police officers and city officials have misconceptions about Hatzolah that led to the clash. He wants to dispel the notion that Hatzolah provides services only to the Jewish community.
“We don’t discriminate whatsoever. We take anyone,” he said.