Mayor Dave Fried recently sat down with the Robbinsville Advance to talk about issues currently impacting the township.
The first two parts of the Q&A resulting from that interview ran in the March and April issues of the Advance and addressed open space and Mercer County elections. To read those articles, go to communitynews.org.
This month, Fried talks about the police department and difficulties facing law enforcement in 2023. One of the biggest problems is the dwindling number of applicants for police jobs.
“Law enforcement agencies across the United States are struggling to recruit and hire police officers,” said 2019 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police titled, A crisis for Law Enforcement.
“Though agency-specific needs exist depending on size or locale, the difficulty with recruitment is a significant problem that is broadly affecting the field of law enforcement—it is not simply a result of poor agency management or localized failures,” the report states.
Since then, the situation has only gotten worse. In 2021, the N.J. State Police reported that applications dropped from 15,000- 20,000 to just 2,130 over the previous one-year period.
Officials in several Mercer County communities interviewed by the Advance, including Fried, have also said that they’re seeing the same trend locally.
An edited version of Fried’s conversation with the Advance on the matter appears below.
Robbinsville Advance: A few months ago, Safewise (an online safety consulting website) named Robbinsville as one of the safest towns in New Jersey. Can you tell me a little about public safety in town?
Dave Fried: Public safety is one of my top responsibilities, and I’m really sad that policing has gotten to where it is in the in the country. I 100% blame the elected officials for the state of policing. We need to support our police departments. We need to provide better training. We need to provide better oversight.
Far too often we allow police officers to go out ill-equipped, ill-trained, ill-supported, and then act shocked that we have bad outcomes. Having a safe town, having good outcomes doesn’t happen by accident. You have to hire great people, and you have to constantly train them. It shocks me to this day that little Robbinsville is one of the few towns in the state of New Jersey, if not the only town in the state of New Jersey, that has a de-escalation training facility.
We train our officers constantly on different scenarios that they’re going to face every day, physically, literally videoing them, watching the outcomes, letting them go through all the different types of things that they’re going to encounter. And if you’ve ever been through it, I’ll tell you, it’s something that you should absolutely deal with. We welcome you to do it, and you will be shocked.
We actually brought through all of our pastors through it. They could not believe how stressful it was. We brought people through who were incredibly anti-police, put them through it, and they could not believe how difficult it is when you start seeing what these officers have to go through in a split second. If you’re not well-trained, there’s a zero percent chance you’re going to have a good outcome.
I can’t believe the fact that elected officials are not encouraging training, making sure that there’s cameras on every police officer. Robbinsville was one of the first to put cameras in cars, and one of the first to put on body cams. We take a look at what we’re doing not because we want to be big brothers watching. We want to constantly train our officers to be better.
If a resident calls me (with a concern), I can see the video of a stop. I can actually see what happened and review it. This way from a civilian standpoint, someone outside the blue wall is actually looking, and they know they’re looking. I can look at that video and say, “Did we do right, or do we do wrong? Could we do better?” And oftentimes, there’s absolutely room there where you could say, “Hey, you know what, they followed the book, but we could do better.” If you’re not constantly training, it is no shock to me that we’re failing.
In Robbinsville we used to have thousands of applications for police officers. We’re now getting like 50. It’s shocking to me because we’re really in a bad place in terms of policing. Philadelphia has 700 openings. Think about that for a second. 700 openings. New York City has never been lower in history with openings.
We cannot hire people fast enough, and when you don’t have good people who want to do the job, the void gets filled with people who probably shouldn’t be doing the job. That to me is also very, very scary. So, the whole sort of concept of policing right now is frightening to me. I really believe in the next 5 to 10 years that there are going to be plenty of instances where people call 911 and no one comes. And that’s terrifying.
RA: You’re not talking about Robbinsville, are you?
DF: No, but I do think you will see it in the cities. In Robbinsville, we’re very different. We’re lucky. We’ve got people who want to come work here (as police officers). They want to come here because they know we support them. They want to come to work here because they know we’re going to give them the right equipment. They know they’re going to come to work here and we’re going to train them. So we’re getting the best of the best.
We also have the highest starting pay in the county. We’re doing things very, very differently to attract the best officers. We do the best training. We give them the best equipment. But guess what? It’s also why we have the best outcomes. So when you look at Robbinsville being one of the safest towns, it’s not by accident. This is something that we’ve worked on for years and years, and it will continue to do so.
I got a lot of criticism when we brought in the training facility, and we did it right before some of the well-publicized incidents (involving police) happened. As soon as those well-publicized incidents happened, I said this is why we were doing this. If you’re not training people to de-escalate, you’re going to have a problem, and then you’re going to wind up having an embarrassing moment. And that’s what we want to avoid.
Lives are on the line. We make one mistake, and it can cost someone their lives. Again, if one of those things happens, there’s no givebacks. There are no mulligans. You pull that trigger and it’s over. So we have to make sure that we really have the best people with the best training before we could potentially have a fatal outcome. And that’s not something we ever want to have happen.
RA: I think a lot of people don’t realize that it’s incredibly easy for police officers, just as a matter of course, to become very jaded. If you think about it, they’re dealing a lot of times with negative situations and people who might be a criminal element, even if it’s a traffic stop. It could be a, confrontational situation, and they’re in a situation where they aren’t always seeing the best of humanity.
I’ve talked to a number of police officers who have become very jaded. They’re great people and great police officers. I don’t think that society, government, whoever, has done a great job of giving police officers the tools that they need to effectively do the job, and also address those types of issues.
DF: I agree. We should also be cycling people in and out of towns where there is high crime. You need to cycle some people out. Just imagine if you went to work today— and every day when you went to work—and you knew someone was going to get shot. Day in, day out, 365 days a year. You knew somebody near you was going to be shot. Just imagine how stressful that would be, and imagine the way you may carry yourself.
RA: Or that you yourself could get shot.
DF: Exactly right. When that happens day in and day out for years, it absolutely makes you jaded. So, we really should be cycling officers in and out of high crime places into safe neighborhoods to again allow people to kind of reacclimate themselves. Because when you’re in a place where you see something horrible every day, it gets very, very hard for you to be at your best. And the stress is just too much. I think it’s too much for anyone.
RA: What’s the progress right now on the police-court building? (Robbinsville has announced plans to build a new police-court facility that it will share with Hightstown.)
DF: So we are still looking to do the new police station-court. We put a pause on it right now primarily due to the pandemic—not necessarily that the pandemic was stopping us from doing the work. The prices just became incredible. We were looking at potentially having to pay 30% to 40% more for a building, so we decided to wait. And we’re already seeing the prices come back down.
We are going to go back out to the architects and get new bids. I do think within the next 12 months we’ll be back to normal, and we will move forward with that project. Hightstown has been very patient with us.
So, we’re 100% committed to doing that. Again, I talked about being a fiscal conservative. I wasn’t going to spend 40% more for no other reason than to try and do it a year early.
RA: How dire is the need—here and in Hightstown—for an expansion to happen?
DF: We need a new building. And it’s a calamity of things. Our building at the police station right now is too small and having Hightstown there, it’s really too small. The court is 100% at the end of its life. It probably should have been out of those trailers a year ago.
We’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to maintain them. But at some point we’re going to lose the court and have to use someone else’s. We’re at the end of the useful life of that building. We definitely have to make a move. There’s not a whole lot of options for us at this point.
RA: Has a location been chosen for the facility yet?
DF: We really want to put the police station in Town Center. We’ve been looking at the south side of Town Center on property that the township owns.
That’s probably where we’re looking. We have another potential idea that we’ve been exploring, but that’s not fully developed yet. But more than likely, we really think it’s going to be Town Center.
We’d really like to be connected with this building (the municipal building). It would be really nice to have all of our staff in the same facility. So that’s something that we’re looking at.