Harrison hires 7 new in blue to meet demands of massive population growth

The new officers are joined by Mayor James A. Fife, Chief Dave Strumolo and Councilman Larry Bennett. Photo courtesy of Larry Bennett

Little by little, the Town of Harrison is taking steps to rebuild its police force to meet the needs of its growing population.

Last week, the town filled seven vacancies on its police roster, just one short of maxing out its 51-member Table of Organization – the largest number of officers permitted by town ordinance. And that remaining slot is expected to be filled soon.

But getting to this point wasn’t easy, Police Chief David Strumolo said.

“When I took over as chief in March 2018, we had a total of 34 police officers,” Strumolo recalled. “Since then, two-thirds of our force have left. Bringing that overall number back up turned out to be a monumental task. It’s taken us four years to get to where we are today.”

Mayor James A. Fife, second from right, swears in one of the new officers. With them are Chief Dave Strumolo, far left, and Councilman Larry Bennett. Photo courtesy of Larry Bennett

Reflecting that transition, he noted, is the fact that before the wave of retirements hit, the average age of the department was in the mid-40s, whereas now, it’s hovering at close to 40.

Following protocols set by state Civil Service, “we certified 150 applicants off a Civil Service hiring list to get our seven new officer candidates,” Strumolo said. Some ended up failing to clear background checks, some didn’t pass a medical exam, others accepted jobs with other police departments and some simply dropped out.

Meanwhile, the town’s population has continued to grow. “In 2018, we had around 17,000 residents and now it’s got to be higher than 20,000,” Strumolo said, with additional developments, primarily in the town’s riverfront redevelopment area, coming on line. “Harrison is one of the fastest-growing towns in the state.”

To ensure the safety of all residents and businesses, Strumolo said he’d asked the mayor and town police committee to allow the expansion of the police department, to hire one additional officer this year to achieve the 51-member T.O. and five more in 2023 and they’ve agreed to up the ante.

With additional personnel available, Strumolo said he’s been given the opportunity to put in place specialized units like community policing, traffic safety and crime suppression.

To increase uniformed visibility around town, the department will be adding two new officers to each road patrol shift and purchasing two new patrol cars to supplement its fleet, he said. Typically, the HPD periodically leases patrol vehicles as needed to replace older cars in the fleet, but this will mark the first outright fleet increase in recent memory, he said.

Also, within the coming year, Strumolo said the department will be opening a police sub-station at the Harrison Parking Center in the heart of the riverfront redevelopment area.

“We’ll start staffing the new facility during morning and afternoon rush hours with officers from our traffic and community policing units,” he said.

Those officers will focus on any garage security issues that may arise, keep tabs on the high volume of commuters using the nearby PATH train station and help with crowd control at Red Bull Arena.

These officers may also assist residents with the renewal of annual resident parking permits and distribution of town-issued literature updating residents about municipal-sponsored programs and events, he said.

Strumolo said the department also plans to acquire two motorcycles to assign to traffic and parking-enforcement officers. “It’s a must for us,” he said, to help control crowds during soccer games and other events at the arena and related traffic concerns. “It will give us more flexibility.”

Using federal Homeland Security funding, the department purchased a Sprinter Van to serve as a command vehicle that can serve as a backup emergency dispatch center. It’s also equipped on the outside, with a 150-foot-long drone camera attachment.

“We’ll also be adding a K-9 unit, primarily for detection of explosives. Probably in the next three months, we’ll be putting out a request through the department for any officer who wants to apply as a dog handler.  Once someone is selected, then that officer will be matched with a canine for training. The process can take up to eight months,” the chief said.

Strumolo estimated the town is investing about $250,000 for the expansion of its motor pool and canine enforcement.

Each of the seven new officers will be earning the current starting pay rate of about $45,000 a year, he said. Three have prior experience as law enforcement officers in other jurisdictions and are now going through a period of in-house orientation. The other four will go to the Passaic County Police Academy for 26 weeks of training before starting assignments in Harrison.

The new hires are: Cindy Alba, a New Jersey City University alum and a prior Class 1 special officer in Guttenberg; Gerard Castellano, a William Paterson University alum who served one year as an officer with the Irvington Police Department; Jessica Clarke, who worked for a funeral home in Somerset; Carlos Delgado, an NJCU alum with a business degree who was a Hudson County Sheriff’s Officer for a year; Christina Ritch, an Arizona State University alum who was an Essex County Sheriff’s Officer four years; Gina Versaguis, an Army veteran who worked the front desk at a medical facility; and Jonathan Puglla, a former Uber driver.

Once all seven are fully operational in Harrison, the HPD will have 17 officers who are fluent in Spanish and/or Portuguese, according to Strumolo, which, he noted, means, “never will there be a time when we don’t have Spanish speakers among our officers on the road.”

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Ron Leir | For The Observer

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 WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York