By Ron Leir
Starting pay was $9,500, a few cops rode stripped down Plymouth wagons with no A/C and .38s were standard sidearms.
That was the Nutley Police Department when John Holland joined up on Sept. 11, 1972.
Last Friday, Holland, 65, bade farewell to a totally revamped department as he retired as the township’s police chief, expecting to usher in in Capt. Tom Strumolo as his provisional successor.
“I’ll miss the people,” Holland said. “I got to work with a great bunch of people.” And that includes civilians like the folks in purchasing and finance, he said, “even though I drove them crazy,” plus the Parks Department for its help with building repairs.
“I’ve always said it’s all one big corporation here – you need a supporting cast of characters – and we had them here,” Holland said.
Looking back on his 41-year career as a bluecoat, Holland – born in Newark and raised in Belleville – said he became a cop almost by chance. After graduating from Bloomfield Tech in 1967, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam in 1968 with the 39th Combat Engineers, completing his tour in 1970 and getting a job with an East Rutherford TV/radio repair shop where he’d worked part-time during high school. At the time, he recalled, “I was interested in all things electronic.”
And there he might have remained if he hadn’t seen a newspaper ad for a New Jersey Civil Service test for municipal police officer. “I thought that might be fun,” Holland said. So he took the test and checked off his preferences for Belleville, Nutley and East Rutherford.
“I came out fifth on the list for Belleville, No. 7 for Nutley and second for East Rutherford,” Holland said. “Nutley called me first so that’s where I ended up going.”
As a rookie, Holland was assigned to the midnight shift by the then-Chief Francis “Motts” Buel. “When I started, a lot of the senior guys were World War II veterans,” Holland said. “The juniors – guys like Jack Barry, Jack Miterko and me – were the Vietnam era.”
Eventually, Holland was switched to days but, since he was still one of the newer men, he drew one of the three “standing posts” along the main business district.
“You stood at that post for eight hours, no matter what the weather was like. Winters were bad. I remember the snow being an inch high on my hat. I tell you, it was a great motivator to study [for the promotional exam].”
In 1977, after placing first on the list for sergeant, Holland was promoted to that rank. “I left street corners behind – that was a good thing.” But, at the same time, “it was back to midnights.” This time, though, he was in a car.
During the ‘70s, Holland – like many of his peers – took advantage of a new U.S. Justice Department initiative, the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration program, that paid cops to go back to school. He signed up for a public safety administration curriculum at William Paterson College and completed in three years. “I was the first member of the Nutley Police Department to attain a college degree,” Holland said.
During his tenure as sergeant, Holland served in patrol, juvenile and detective bureaus. In 1980, he went to the record bureau and was instrumental in bringing in the department’s first computer system. “A lot of that was driven by the new Uniform Crime Reporting system,” he said.
The mainframe “was the size of a refrigerator” and a hard drive resembled “an old 33 1/3 rpm record,” Holland recalled. “It was our first foray into the world of electronics.” And it expedited lookups of things like warrants, arrests and the whole array of police reports, he said.
In 1986 Holland was elevated to detective captain. (Nutley PD didn’t institute the lieutenant rank until around 1990.) And, when Chief Sal Dimichino retired in 1990, Bob DeLitta took over as chief and Holland became his deputy.
That year, the department sent Holland to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., to participate in a prestigious 13-week training program, run by the Academy and the Univ. of Virginia, for local, county and state cops from the U.S. and around the globe. The course is offered four times a year for 250 cops each session. “The level of instruction is the finest you’ll get anywhere,” he said. “I was only the second guy from Nutley – after Capt. Bill Knust in 1968 – to go.”
An interesting sidelight: “It was the same year ‘Silence of the Lambs’ [part of which was filmed at the Academy] was released,” Holland said. “It was out the same time I was there.” The course – like the movie – examines the operation of the FBI’s behavioral science unit. “It was spellbinding stuff. The instructors told us about tracking serial killers like Ted Bundy and Army Capt. Jeffrey MacDonald.”
Back in Nutley, Holland continued as deputy chief for 14 years and was made chief in 2004 and during that time, he set up a computer network that included the use of e-mail as the department’s “primary means of communication,” instead of leaving job-related notes in a cop’s mail box and hoping he or she had read it when he or she reported for their next shift.
Starting in the late ‘90s, with Holland helping steer the way, computer devices began making their way into the department’s motor pool, as well: Mobile data terminals and license plate readers allowed patrol cops to flag vehicles that had been reported stolen or used in crimes or to ID operators wanted on warrants or other offenses; GPS units enabled headquarters to get a fix on the location of patrol units for expeditious dispatch to emergencies or crime scenes; and in-car video systems, supplemented by audio, help ensure fair treatment of cops in contested civilian complaint cases.
Holland said he saw the value of computers as a training tool during his 18 years with the Air National Guard, which he joined in 1988 at age 40. “I always wanted to fly,” he said. “They showed me you could train average people to do remarkable things.”
In four decades with the PD, Holland recalled only a handful of violent episodes, two of which coincided with holidays:
Sometime in the mid-‘80s, he was called away from a Thanksgiving family meal to check out a River Road murder; a man had been shot dead in a car in what was later determined to be a drug deal gone sour.
And, during the early ‘90s, on St. Patrick’s Day, he had a near close call when he and his partner drove to a local tavern on a report of a shooting. Officer Mike Stoffers was returning to a local tavern where patrons had been fighting, only to be shot in the shoulder just outside the entrance, and had returned fire but the shooter got away. Had he arrived just a bit sooner, Holland said, he might have been hit by the shooter.
A year or two after he joined the force, Holland said, a 7-year-old girl was axed to death by her mother in their Park Ave. residence. The mother, apparently delusional, had been “hearing voices,” Holland said. “As a young cop at the time, it drove home to me that anything can happen.”
Today, Nutley PD, like other departments, is “busier” today than it was when he started and part of that upswing, Holland said, is due to the township’s proximity to the Clifton Commons and its 16-plex cinema. Because of all the traffic the site draws, “it’s like an uncorked bottle.”
Another factor, Holland said, is Nutley’s being “sandwiched between large urban communities – Newark on one end and Passaic/Paterson on the other – along the Rt. 21 corridor where studies have shown the percent of increased crime is staggering. We have monthly meetings with municipal police from the 15 towns in the corridor, plus county and state police, to share information on crimes in the corridor.”
In response to the uptick of violent crimes, and taking a lead from the school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in April 1999 and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, Nutley PD members carry body armor in patrol cars as a precaution and, seven years ago, the department formed a 12-member “tactical squad” to respond to high-level threats.
“We do ‘active shooter’ training in our schools once a year and we do similar shooter scenarios at other locations as well,” Holland said. “The important lesson from Columbine, for example, is you can’t set up a perimeter and wait for John Wayne and the cavalry to come because it’ll be too late. People will die. The only solution is rapid, competent police response to enter the building and stop the threat. And you have to have the in-house capability to accomplish that.”
Looking to the future, Holland believes the “big challenge” facing the PD is “the manpower issue. Police Departments in Nutley and elsewhere are shrinking and it takes a lot of people to run a 24-hour operation, the backbone of which is patrol. We had to cancel our DARE (youth drug prevention) program because we just don’t have the luxury to staff it.”
As for Mayor/Public Safety Director Alphonse Petracco’s exploration of possibly appointing a civilian police director in place of a permanent chief, Holland said: “There’s no substitute for a police officer who comes up through the ranks because every experience as an officer is going to shape what you do as chief. It would be a big mistake to go to a civilian director – I wouldn’t take the job if it were offered to me.”
To stay active in retirement, Holland said he “may try for something in aviation, maybe in flight support services,” possibly at Teterboro Airport.