By Ron Leir
EAST NEWARK –
Hudson County’s smallest municipal police force – nine cops plus one special – will be diminished by one on May 31.
That’s when Police Chief Kenneth Sheehan will bid farewell to the troops. “I’ll have 28 years and nine months on the job,” he said during a recent interview in his tiny office at Borough Hall.
“It’s been a great career,” Sheehan said. “I’ve had a great working relationship with the mayor and council. They’ve always been very supportive of my role.”
Returning the compliment, Mayor Joseph Smith – who named Sheehan acting chief in May 2000 and appointed him permanently in January 2002 – lauded the chief with reviving the morale and performance of the department.
“He always would stick up for the [rank and file],” Smith said. “He always put them first. … To have the men as happy as they are, he should get the credit. And he led by setting a good example.”
The chief, who received a 3% pay hike, retroactive to Jan. 1, will retire with pension of about $8,000 per month.
Sheehan’s path to borough bluecoats boss was a bit circuitous.
Sheehan was born in Staten Island, N.Y., but the family – (he was one of seven children) – moved to the Colonia section of Woodbridge when he was nine. He graduated from Colonia High School where he excelled at football and wrestling.
In 1981 he married Patricia Tighe, whose family has deep roots in East Newark. The couple took up residency in the borough and in May 1982, Sheehan got his introduction to public service when he was accepted as a member of the borough’s volunteer Fire Department.
Sheehan said he had notions of transitioning to a job as a paid firefighter because “I thought that would be a good career.”
But he changed direction in August 1984 when then-Mayor Ray Graham offered him a position with the borough Police Department and, after successfully completing his police academy training in December 1984, he was appointed as patrolman – becoming the first cop in his family.
At the same time, he continued serving as a volunteer firefighter with the borough.
Sheehan was promoted to police captain in December 1993 and was elevated to deputy chief in 1996.
During 1997 and 1998, he was chief of the volunteer firefighters.
“I believe I’m the only one in the borough who has served as chief of both [Police and Fire] Departments,” he noted.
As a cop, Sheehan earned numerous commendations, including a Valor Award presented by the Hudson County 200 Club in recognition of the role he played in a life-saving incident at the Clay St. Bridge on Sept. 13, 1987.
He also became an advocate for his fellow officers, serving as president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association from 1988 to 1992. “We were the first to negotiate a contract as an independent branch of Harrison PBA Local 22 and we never went to arbitration,” Sheehan said, “because we and the borough were able to work together to get a fair agreement.”
Sheehan is a member of the New Jersey Police Honor Legion, which supports a police Widows and Orphans Fund for the families of officers killed in the line of duty, and sponsors competitive college scholarships for members’ children and programs for children with disabilities.
As a member of the Hudson County Police Chiefs Association, Sheehan served as its secretary-treasurer and was president in 2005-2006.
He has served as East Newark delegate to the United Irish Association for West Hudson, former grand marshal (in 1995) of the UIAWH St. Patrick’s Parade and Irishman of the Year (1987).
And he’s been a Democratic county committeeman for his district since 1991.
During his tenure with the Police Department, the starting annual pay for a rookie cop has risen from $15,500 to $27,000 but, as the borough began feeling economically pinched, it extended the number of steps to reach maximum pay.
With such a small department – and only one supervisory officer (a sergeant) other than the chief – Sheehan said he’s “proud’’ of the way his rank-and-file cops have learned to react as a first-responder in a public safety situation, such as taking control of a domestic dispute scene until a superior can respond or deciding what to charge a suspect when executing a warrant.
As a reflection of the borough’s changing demographics, the Police Department has tried to adjust to the needs of local residents in another way: Six officers are bilingual, Sheehan noted.
On those occasions when he’s had to suspend or remove a member of the department, Sheehan said he’s “always had the support of the mayor and council. Never once has there been any political interference in unpopular decisions I’ve made that I thought were in the best interests of the department, as long as I could legally justify my actions.”
While short on personnel, Sheehan has incorporated technology as a law enforcement aid with the placement of visual and audio units in patrol vehicles, Mayor Smith said. “That gave our cops another set of eyes and it also cut down on the number of citizen complaints,” he said.
“Also, starting six or seven years ago, acting on the chief’s recommendation, we started buying police cars on three-year leases, getting them fully under guarantee, other than tires and brakes,” the mayor noted. That has turned out to be a money saver for the borough, he said.
As Sheehan turns his focus to more time with his family, particularly 3-year-old grandson Maddon, at least one family member – Ken Sheehan Jr., 23, is following in his dad’s footsteps: He’s a public safety officer with New Jersey Institute of Technology. Daughter Courtney, 30, is also pursuing public service; she’s working for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission.