Kearns set for March 1 retirement from Harrison PD

HARRISON

West Hudson will see another change at the top of a municipal police department early next year.

Harrison Police Chief Derek Kearns said he’s filed his application for retirement, effective March 1, 2018. Kearny lost veteran Police Chief John Dowie to retirement on Dec. 1.

On Dec. 5, four HPD captains took the state Civil Service test for police chief of Harrison. Test results weren’t immediately available as of press time.

As Kearns prepares his exit — after nearly 28 years with the department and nearly 13 years as chief — the HPD anticipates welcoming aboard its first women cops since the retirement of Lt. Kelly McClelland in January 2012.

McClelland was hired in 1989.

Effective Dec. 11, Amaris Sarah Gracian, Jamie Nicole Sackerman and Elizabeth Yasmin Delacruz Villar, were appointed to the force, all pending successful completion of a 16-week training program which they’re scheduled to begin Jan. 5 at the Essex County Public Safety Academy in Cedar Grove.

Another new officer, also appointed Dec. 11, is Kirk Thomas Lin Zeta, who will be part of the same academy class.

A fifth police newcomer — Kearny resident Patrick Triano Jr. — is due to transfer from the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office to the HPD, effective Dec. 20.

Those new appointments will bring the HPD’s strength up to 39, which, Kearns said, is still far short of where the department should be. Still, he added, “it looks like we’re turning the corner.”

All four rookies have military experience: Gracian, a Bayonne High School alumna, is in the Navy Reserves; Delacruz Villar, a graduate of Lincoln High School, Jersey City, and a graduate student in criminal justice at John Jay College, New York, is a Marine Corps veteran; and Sackerman, a Harrison resident who went to the former Queen of Peace High School, North Arlington, is a Navy veteran pursuing a degree at Kean University and previously was a security guard at Morristown Medical Center. Lin Zeta, a Bayonne resident born in the Philippines who has a criminal justice degree, is an Army veteran and previously worked for the Federal Reserve Police.

Sackerman’s brother is a New Jersey State Trooper.

Kearns, 54, a Harrison native who went to St. Cecilia High School, Kearny, looks back on a lengthy career in uniform, beginning in 1987 with a 16-month stint as a member of the William Paterson University Campus Police.

“My dad, James P. Kearns Jr., was a state trooper which inspired me as a young man to choose this path,” the chief said.

In January 1989, after having taken the Civil Service test for police officer, Kearns was appointed police officer in Harrison. Starting pay was $26,000 a year and there were 63 on the force, he recalled. “We went to 67 in 1990,” he added.

Kearns moved quickly up through the ranks, receiving promotions to sergeant in 1994, lieutenant in 1997 and captain in 2004. During that time, he served under three chiefs – Joe Malley, Vinnie Green and John Trucillo.

In 2000 Kearns became the first member of the HPD to graduate from the FBI National Academy. He also attended the FBI LEEDA (Leadership/ Ethics/Embracing change/Diversity/Academia) program in Princeton and graduated No. 1 from West Point Command School.

He became chief in 2005.

Among the department’s achievements during his tenure, Kearns highlighted the following:

  • Certification by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) in 2010 and recertification in 2013, demonstrating, according to Kearns, the HPD’s policies and practices “are compliant with the highest standards in the industry …. Simply put, it’s the gold standard in public safety.”
  • Protecting and providing service to the Red Bull Arena since its opening in 2009. “This continues to be a demanding challenge for this department and we’ve been handling it,” he said, during the Arena season, stretching from March to late November.
  • Technology: building a new communications center at HPD headquarters and deploying CCTV cameras — currently 37 throughout the community.
  • Partnering in the U.S. Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Program by sharing an HPD detective with the federal unit. In return, during the past decade, Kearns said, the HPD has received more than $700,000 from the program used for equipment, uniforms and training.
  • Change in patrol work schedule, from eight- to 12-hour shifts. Kearns said it’s been a boon in improving efficiency of service on all tours and reducing overtime. “It will put the department in position for growth and officer recruitment in the coming years,” he said. “We’ve already expanded our traffic bureau and created a small crime suppression unit.” Hopefully, he said, those specialized units can grow.

Kearns said he was frustrated by having to accept a “staff reduction” mandate from the state Division of Local Government Services that saw the elimination of a deputy chief rank and several demotions that, in his judgement, limited the HPD’s effectiveness.

“At a minimum,” he said, “[the HPD] should be a mid-size police department with [at least] 50 police officers.”

“It’s both a tribute and a compliment to our officers that they’ve managed to keep this town safe,” Kearns said. “I’ve been blessed to have officers who are competent and dedicated and doing an outstanding job.”

He also credited his former commanders for the lessons he’s learned from them.

“I had a great run and wish to thank all of them, both past and present, for being part of this wonderful journey,” he said.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.