By Joy Belgiovine
On Feb. 4, the face of the Hackensack Police Department will change forever. For the first time in the force’s history, a civilian police director will be leading the men and women in blue.
Michael Mordaga, a highly-decorated law enforcement expert, says his first order of business is to restore and rebuild trust in a department which has been riddled in controversy. Its long-time chief, Ken Zisa, was indicted and convicted of official misconduct, and the rank and file has inundated the courts with civil lawsuits accusing Zisa and the city of violating the officers’ civil rights.
“There are major issues in the department that exist,” he said. “I believe that’s had an enormous effect on the community of Hackensack. The first thing I want to do is bring back the trust and respect of the community.”
Mordaga, 55, is taking over the helm from Interim Chief Tomas Padilla, who officially retired on Jan. 31. A captain will fill in until Mordaga begins his one-year contract. Mordaga will earn an annual salary of $150,000 per year and will continue to collect his annual state pension of $124,000. A private security firm with which Mordaga has been affiliated will not perform any work for the City of Hackensack while Mordaga holds the position of police director.
Although Mordaga is technically a civilian director, he will be armed.
“I carried a firearm for my entire career and will continue to carry a firearm,” Mordaga said, dispelling recent reports to the contrary.
Mordaga, a graduate of Hackensack High School, began his law enforcement career as an undercover officer with the Bergen County Narcotics Task Force in 1976 then joined the Hackensack force. After 25 years in the city, Mordaga left Hackensack in 2002 to take a job as chief of detectives for the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office but his ties to Hackensack remained strong. When it came time for the Hackensack City Council to select one among the 30 candidates who applied for the director position, Mordaga was the obvious choice.
“The overwhelming support from the Hackensack community as a whole, combined with my love for the City of Hackensack, and the fact that my career as a police officer had been with the Hackensack Police Department, is what brought me back here,” he said.
Mordaga is the most decorated cop in Hackensack history with a career that span more than 30 years. He’s received more than 180 commendations, executed more than 5,000 arrests and assisted in thousands of drug busts. Twenty years ago, Mordaga founded the Bergen Police Athletic League and remains actively involved with the city’s summer basketball league and various other youth programs.
He retired from the prosecutor’s office in 2007 and has been working in the private sector.
“I have always been proud of the Hackensack P.D. I remember the feeling I had as a police officer in that department, and I want to bring that same feeling back for the men and women serving the department now,” he said.
Mordaga knows that a change in morale and perception won’t happen overnight and may not be easy.
“It’s a large department of 114 officers and you are never going to make everyone happy,” he explained. “But I do think that most officers want to be proud of the department they are part of and want the residents of Hackensack to see them as professionals who will protect and assist them – as a police force they can rely on.”
Another area that Mordaga is focused on is improving security within Hackensack schools.
“I’ve been researching many ideas that I am eager to discuss with the board of education,” Mordaga said. “These ideas rely on law enforcement involvement, not private security.”
Mordaga and his wife, Cynthia, have four children, Jenna, Louis, Michael and Anthony.