Albert Rhodes, new chief of the Ewing Police Department, used to enjoy being part of the action. Now, after a career in public service and working his way up the ranks, he can finally take a step back and observe.
“I’ve seen officers go into burning buildings and buy groceries for people who are down on their luck,” he said. “I’ve seen officers hold children that were scared just like they were their own. Every day reaffirms the reason I wanted to do this job.”
Rhodes’ promotion to chief in January followed the retirement of a number of the department’s superior officers including Chief John Stemler, Deputy Chief Rocco Maruca, Capt. David LaBaw and Lt. Karl Bartkowski. In the wake of the retirements, Officers Daniel McGuire and Jeffrey Jacobs were promoted to captain, and Robert Litz and Carlos Santiago to lieutenant.
“We did just have a lot of officers retire all at once,” Rhodes said. “The mayor has made several promotions to backfill our command staff. We’ve been able to move forward and continue our work without missing a beat here.”
As for policing during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest challenges the department has faced is figuring out how to train new officers effectively while still staying safe.
“We’re not training like we used to,” said Rhodes. “A lot of it has been online and is not really hands on. We’re trying to limit our exposures in any way we can so we can maintain adequate manpower on the street.”
Rhodes said he also reminds officers to be aware of the emotional and financial challenges that have accompanied this pandemic for many residents, and he encourages them to be compassionate and make adjustments to their job where they see fit.
“We’re aware that families are struggling out there and some have lost their jobs,” he said. “Maybe if they’re getting a traffic ticket, it might really hurt them. Officers are aware of that and how every call they’re involved in circles back to the pandemic.”
When Rhodes began his law enforcement career as a part-time officer in Wildwood in 1998 (he became full time there in 2001), he spent his days crossing out and erasing mistakes on police reports. Today, most officers don’t need to keep a bottle of White Out on their desk, but access to technology is certainty not the only thing that sets being a cop in 2021 apart from the past.
“We’ve definitely gotten a lot of media attention over the last several months, so I think maybe the public perception has changed,” he said. “What you see in the media is not representative of what the men and women of Ewing Township stand for. And that’s not something that came without a lot of hard work.”
For example, when residents took to the streets to peacefully protest police brutality following the death of George Floyd this summer, Ewing Police officers were ready to listen and learn, according to Rhodes.
“Some of our officers participated in the protests when they were off, and there were protestors thanking the officers for providing safety and doing traffic control,” he said. “The protests are what started the conversation. We need to continuously be open with each other, and through that communication, we’re going to make things better.”
Rhodes, who sat down with organizers following the protests, said he believes that the greatest enemy to a more united community is a breakdown in conversation.
He said that if he has learned anything from the situation last summer, it’s that the fight for racial justice is an active decision and continuous battle, as change does not happen overnight.
Rhodes said he believes he’s not doing his job if the residents of Ewing don’t feel like they’re safe and protected.
“The township itself has a very diverse population, and our police force is diverse,” he said. “And that’s not to say that we’ve done a great job and can sit back and it’s over. This is a daily process and there is always room for improvement.”
The chief said he is also aware that there is a fine line between commanding safety and assuming authority, which is something he keeps in mind and reminds his officers.
“We treat every interaction as an opportunity to show that we stand by you and we’re here to help you,” he said. “We are not an occupying force. We are here to assist the community and make everyone feel safer. We’ve put in that work to develop a relationship with the community, and with every interaction, we have to maintain that trust.”
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Rhodes, who resides in Ewing Township with his wife and three kids, comes from a background of civil service—his father worked his way up from summer help to the director of Mercer County Public Works and retired after 44 years.
The chief said that when he was a student at Notre Dame High School, he was certain he wanted to join the police force. “The police always seemed to be a calming presence,” he said. “Whenever there was chaos, they made people feel safe.”
A native of Hamilton Township who lived there for 24 years, Rhodes attended the Cape May County Police Academy, graduating number one in his class overall and earning the Director’s Award. While at the Wildwood Police Department, he worked in the Patrol Division and Street Crimes Unit.
In 2004, Rhodes was hired by the Ewing Police Department, where he has served in a number of capacities, including the Patrol Division, Tactical Patrol Unit, Criminal Investigations Bureau and Tactical Response Team.
He has also been assigned to, and worked investigations with, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office Narcotics Task Force, Mercer County Regional Violent Crimes Task Force, the N.J. State Police Gang Unit, the N.J. State Police Regional Operations Intelligence Center, the FDA and the FBI.
Rhodes was promoted to sergeant in 2014 and then to lieutenant in 2016, while continuing to serve in the Patrol Division. In 2018 he was transferred into the department’s Support Services Bureau and was eventually promoted to captain, where he oversaw the Investigative Division.
He is a graduate of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police Command and Leadership Academy, and he has earned a number of awards, including Ewing Police Officer of the Year in 2013.
Rhodes said that while there has been much progress over the years, he also appreciates Mercer County’s consistency.
“The cars have gotten faster, but it doesn’t feel like Mercer County has changed much throughout the years,” he said. “You can still go right down to the City of Trenton and watch minor league baseball games and ice skate in Mercer County Park.”
Despite all of his years in public service, Rhodes said he arrives at the job every day knowing that there is room for improvement.
“I’ve made it now to the rank of chief police officer, and I’m still learning something new every day,” he said. “Don’t ever think that you know everything. It’s a different job every day and it’s constantly evolving.”
He encourages all who are considering joining the police force to consider the selflessness of their intentions.
“You need to be doing this job to help people,” he said. “Your intentions have to be pure, and if they’re not, that is going to reflect in your performance. This is a job about service and doing what is right.”