Being a Hoboken police officer has its unique challenges. While the murder rate has dropped to zero, police are faced with the increasing popularity of a mile-square waterfront town that draws party-goers to fill the bars on every holiday. Each day on the job is different, according to Police Chief Kenneth Ferrante, who just finished his first year in the top spot. He took over on Dec. 1, 2014.
In years past, the department was subject to criticism on a number of fronts. In 2006, members of the department’s SWAT team went down to Louisiana to help after Hurricane Katrina and posed for pictures with Hooters waitresses holding their guns. (The lieutenant who was in charge was also the target of a related lawsuit and is no longer with the department.) Police in general have been exposed to criticism after several high-profile police brutality incidents across the country.
“Officers are taught to treat every complaint, victim, and witness, the same,” Ferrante said, “no matter the age, the demographic, background, nationality or social status. We do a lot of active shooter training where we are patrolling against conduct, not against what somebody looks like. That is the message we keep teaching our officers. The professionalism needs to be there.”
The department consists of 152 officers in three departments: investigations, the administrative division, and the uniformed patrol. Recently, a group of new recruits headed to Bergen County to begin a six-month training course.
The uniformed patrol is comprised of four units: motorized patrol, waterfront parks, traffic, and school resource.
The Waterfront Parks Unit was formed by Ferrante and inspired by Hoboken’s danger-prone harbor that has taken several lives in the last ten years. The waterfront has a strong undertow that has claimed a series of victims unlucky enough to have fallen into the river.
The city has eight cameras along the waterfront.
As of this month, the unit has expanded from 16 hours to patrolling for 24 hours along the city’s 1.3 miles of waterfront.
Ferrante said the creation of the unit was spurred by the death of Andrew Jarzyk, a resident in his 20s. After drinking with friends in March of 2014, he went for a run along the waterfront. A month later, his body was discovered floating in an abandoned ferry slip south of the Hoboken train terminal. No foul play was suspected and the autopsy revealed a high level of alcohol in his blood.
Ferrante was working the front desk at headquarters when Jarzyk was reported missing.
“That family and incident will stay with me forever,” he said.
As a result, the city installed orange signs on the waterfront, warning visitors about the powerful currents, and placed special rescue bags with 75 feet of rope. The waterfront parks unit can now patrol, watch for illegal activities, and deal with the homeless population.
“Andrew’s brother, Steve, came to see me in 2015 on the one year anniversary of his death and it was a moving moment,” said Ferrante. “He came to thank me for putting a waterfront parks unit out there and making some changes.”
Violent crime down, reported rape up
Ferrante, who was born and raised in Hoboken, was happy to report a 12.6 percent drop in overall crime numbers in 2015 from 2014.
Robberies decreased by 39 percent (from 56 to 34 in a year), burglary by 28 percent (from 128 to 92), and motor-vehicle theft by 19 percent (from 47 to 38).
To put the city’s reduction in car thefts in context, Ferrante said in the 1990s it wasn’t uncommon to see 600 to 700 thefts a year.
Hoboken had one more aggravated assault in 2015 than in 2014, for a total of 102.
There were nearly 10 percent fewer larcenies (theft of personal property wherein the victim is not present at time of robbery) from 861 to 776, and 8 percent fewer violent crimes from 159 to 145.
The murder rate was nil, like the previous year.
However, the number of reported rape cases climbed by 350 percent, from two incidents last year to nine this year. Ferrante explained that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s reporting system expanded the types of crimes that can go into the rape category, including other types of sexual assaults. The newest report does not include a separate category for sexual assault but categorizes that as rape. Grabbing the buttocks, for instance, would be in that category.
Ferrante said that the numbers are for crimes reported, and he did not know which ones were prosecuted. He said it’s under the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office’s discretion to alert the public when an alleged rapist is still at large.
“We’ve had good crime numbers already over the last 10 years or so in this city,” he said. “It’s a fairly safe city from violent crime, but we were able to get those numbers even lower. It’s testament to the hard work that both our uniformed and investigative officers did.”
Terrorism and police shootings
Two major efforts that are coming up in 2016 involve acquiring an emergency services truck and expanding the Investigations Bureau (which includes the detective and narcotics bureau).
The department expects to pay $150,000 for an emergency services truck that can carry three officers to anything from an animal control issue to an active shooter situation. The truck will be paid for under a local law enforcement trust fund.
Following civil unrest after shootings that made national headlines, like the controversial death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Ferrante said he’s careful to avoid the pitfall of a “militarized” police force.
“I think the sentiment in this area is to have less militarization,” he said referring to equipping police with military-class equipment.
“When you see what happened in San Bernardino, you need to have equipment available to take on terrorists and violent criminals that have heavy equipment,” he said. “That’s why I think the best thing for us is an Emergency Services truck; it’s not anything in the area of militarization but it is giving us the proper equipment.”
This includes flashlights, ladders, and other items.
To strengthen the department’s partnership with the community, Ferrante said he made it a priority to foster relationships with the media, the administration of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, and community members.
Referring to the 2006 Hooters incident, Ferrante said, “Post-Hooters scandal, there was a lot of anti-police sentiment that you could find on social media. There was distrust. I think the professionalism the officers are showing is greatly decreasing that. I ask you to take a half hour and go online and look for negative comments on [Hoboken police] stories. You don’t see any. It used to be 40-50 negative comments attached to a story.”
Ferranted noted, “Every day in this country, you have police-involved shootings. But why are there only a few that become riot situations? Because of two things: relationships weren’t fostered beforehand, and there’s distrust between people and the government.”
Although he’s not required to, the chief attends every City Council and Housing Authority meeting and meetings with community members.
Another priority in the coming year will be getting security cameras running in the city and upgrading the department’s radio system.
The city recently installed eight cameras along the waterfront (near Pier A, Pier C and uptown), which will be up and running in the next week or so, and plans to install another 15 to 20 in 2016 in various locations based on crime stats and recommendations from city officials.
The department installed the “Beast” this year, a computer program able to electronically manage property and evidence records. Ferrante plans to digitize information the department currently has.
Plans are being rolled out to replace an archaic 800 mega hertz radio system. The digital transmission system would make the department “interoperable” with other agencies such as the Fire Department and emergency medical services. The current system is plagued by pitfalls like malfunctioning under certain weather conditions, running into dead spots in some parts of the city, and crossing with surrounding transmissions, he said.
“The new digital system will be a high six-figure cost investment with the possibility of bonding,” Ferrante said. “The goal is to have it in 2016.”
One piece of technology the police chief is deliberating over is police body cameras.
The cameras, which officers wear on their uniforms, have taken hold in several law enforcement agencies in the U.S., allowing people to review what went wrong during the course of police work.
“I am a conditional proponent of the body cameras on the officers because there are several factors that I have yet to decide my position on,” said Ferrante. “I’m worried about slowing officer reaction time and the cost for the servers to hold the materials and all the data from all the officer’s body cameras [which] can cripple a city and department’s budget.”
Ferrante said the New York Police Department (NYPD), made up of as many as 40,000 officers, recently launched a pilot program arming 30 officers with body cameras.
“I want to hear the NYPD’s results before we take the next step,” Ferrante said. “Body cameras are something this department and every department of the state will have in a couple of years. But I don’t want to be the test study because there are a lot of questions still left unanswered.”
City is changing
To be sure, the work of the Police Department is changing just as the mile-square city changes. The city is becoming more popular with new families and with post-college residents who like to take advantage of the bars.
Holiday events that encourage bar crawls throughout the city, which Ferrante calls “high-incident days,” caused havoc last year; Lepre-con, Santa-con and Halloween Day were among the worst.
Halloween weekend last year was considered a “perfect storm” for bedlam due to the World Series, good weather, and the change back to standard time leaving an additional hour for bars to stay open.
“I think these events are getting popular because the younger generation [publicizes] their drinking days [on social media],” Ferrante said.
The chief said in the early 2000s, 30-year-olds more commonly took advantage of the city’s nightlife. But today, Hoboken is trending toward the twentysomethings.
“A 21 year-old is not gonna handle their liquor the same as a 35-year-old will. They’re going to drink different things and act differently,” Ferrante said.
The police chief said the department has already begun planning for Lepre-con Day, which is held the first Saturday in March before St. Patrick’s Day, by meeting with bar owners and surveying social media.
Steven Rodas can be reached at email@example.com.