New Jersey State Police as Rural Constabulary
By Richard D. Smith | Posted January 19, 2023
One hundred and one years ago, officers of the newly-founded New Jersey State Police commenced patrolling the Garden State, serving particularly as a “rural constabulary” for towns that were too small to afford their own police forces — such as Rocky Hill.
New Jersey State Police have provided full-time police services to Rocky Hill since the 1920s.
Law enforcement has come far since the first troopers rode motorcycles and, yes, on horseback, cavalry-style. But today, while borough residents and elected officials express great respect for the troopers and gratitude for service they’ve rendered, there are concerns that the State Police have moved away: Not in duty or tenacity, but in station distance and response time.
Rocky Hill Mayor Robert John Uhrik is very much aware of the overall issues in what he terms “an ongoing challenge.” But he’s quick to point out that State Police service to rural areas is paid via the state budget, not borne by small towns themselves. Policing, he emphasizes, “is a big-ticket item” for towns that have their own departments. “It’s the biggest line item in any municipal budget.” New Jersey has 566 municipalities. State Police cover 73 (that don’t have their own police departments) full time and 13 part time. Out of a roughly $260 million State Police budget in 2015, it cost the department a little over $53 million a year to provide the services. The money comes from the general fund and just about every taxpayer contributes in some way. There are four barracks. Rocky Hill is part of Troop C, which serves central New Jersey.
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Over the years, various stations have been responsible for the borough. The closest was the Princeton barracks on Route 1 South near Forrestal Village, about seven miles away. But Princeton’s core mission shifted from general patrolling to traffic oversight, including truck safety monitoring. Rocky Hill was served next by the Wilburtha station in West Trenton (next to NJSP headquarters) and then Hamilton. Now, it’s Kingwood in Hunterdon County – a marathon’s distance of some 26 miles from Rocky Hill. There have been emergencies during which the nearby Montgomery police responded and took charge until troopers arrived. There are also anecdotal reports of residents contacting a State Police dispatcher about quality-of-life violations (such as raucously loud late night parties keeping their neighborhoods awake) only to be told honestly that more serious ongoing incidents would prevent troopers from responding.
However, any discussion of State Police operations and service must acknowledge how greatly its legislatively-mandated responsibilities have increased since its 1921 founding. Troopers patrol the NJ Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, and the Atlantic City Expressway. With its aerial and marine operations, the NJSP has surveillance and rescue capabilities. Troopers walk the Atlantic City casino floors and do investigations as needed. And they’re responsible for the security of the governor and the presidents of the state senate and assembly. From 800 to 1,000 troopers are assigned at any time to these mandated duties. And the State Police oversees and keeps records for everything from private firearms ownership to private detective agencies.
Fortunately, State Police operations haven’t suffered from staffing cuts. In 2015, there were 2,639 troopers. By 2021, that number had risen to 3,020. The NJSP has about 1,250 civilian employees. A growing population “We all see the need for increased policing,” says Mayor Uhrik. “The community is growing, the region is growing.” The Route 518 / 206 intersection has at least 1,000 new housing units and apartments just across the border in Montgomery Township. They also are set to break ground on a large new shopping center by the Princeton Airport. Meanwhile, little Rocky Hill Borough, with a population of 743 persons, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, is seeing an abundance of additional traffic. And, a developer will soon add about 70 new rowhomes on a grassy field on Princeton Avenue. “We already partner with Franklin Township for traffic patrols,” Uhrik says. “But it’s only for traffic calming, mostly speeding.”
Local municipalities assist each other for fires and first aid. “There may be other opportunities,” Uhrik says. But, he adds, a complete municipal merger with Montgomery to obtain full police services “is not on our minds. It’s not [even] a discussion in the borough.” The mayor acknowledges that having neighboring police take charge in pressing emergencies pending State Police arrival is “problematic.” But he quickly adds, “I have to commend Montgomery for responding and stabilizing those situations.” Former Montgomery Township Administrator Donato Neiman is well aware of the issues involved. An unresolved question, Neiman says, is whether Rocky Hill will indemnify Montgomery Township in case a lawsuit arises from an action in which the Montgomery police responded to a Rocky Hill emergency.
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Neiman praises the dedication and service of the state troopers, however, he says the response time from the Kingwood station “can be an hour or more” depending where its cars are patrolling and if its personnel are busy responding to other emergency calls. Montgomery police can and have responded to Rocky Hill emergencies — with a response time of 90 seconds to five minutes max, Neiman says. Rocky Hill is surrounded by Montgomery on three sides, so Montgomery police cars frequently drive through the borough to patrol the Blue Spring Road condos and apartments neighborhood. “Over the years, Montgomery has discussed with Rocky Hill if they want to enter into an agreement for shared policing,” says Neiman, adding, “I understand the financial concerns of the borough.” He cautions: “Once you leave State Police coverage, that’s it, you can’t go back.”
What say the state police?
Another highly knowledgeable perspective is provided by Joseph R. (“Rick”) Fuentes. Colonel Fuentes was the 13th NJ State Police superintendent, serving from June 2003 to November 2017. (His 14-year 4-month tenure was exceeded only by that of State Police founder H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Sr., at 14 years 11 months). After a 40-year career with the division, Fuentes is now deputy director of the Center for Policing at Rutgers.
Fuentes conversed with The Montgomery News not as a NJSP spokesperson but to share his outlook, based in considerable experience. Acknowledging citizen concerns about the Kingwood station being geographically far removed from Rocky Hill, Fuentes emphasizes modern State Police work is proactive, not strictly reactive. Patrol routes and schedules are designed so that troopers frequently drive through, or at least near, small municipalities for which the force is responsible. “The troopers don’t sit at the stations waiting for calls,” he says. “That’s the whole reason for those area assignments, in case an emergency occurs.” This approach is conscientiously used to reduce response times. “On a routine basis,” Fuentes says, “the station and troop commanders go through daily records and [make] reports on what was done during calls.” “Response times,” he emphasizes, “do not go unnoticed.” Should arrival times be unacceptably long, “it becomes the station commander’s responsibility to redeploy his patrols.”
The N.J. State Police substation sign remains on the Rocky Hill municipal building, although it has not been used since 2007.
Rocky Hill’s State Police Substation
Ed Zimmerman a former Rocky Hill councilman and mayor from 2007 to 2014, is familiar with the needs of a small town. In 2004, at his urging, a State Police substation was established in Rocky Hill borough hall in what was once the office shared by the mayor and the municipal judge. Its purpose was to provide the troopers an official space in town, thus encouraging more frequent visits.
It was actively used by the State Police until 2007. The South Bound Brook Police subsequently made use of it, Zimmerman says. (Mayor Uhrik confirms that the substation “is no longer operating,” although the sign remains.)
In the mid-2000s, then-Rocky Hill Mayor Brian Nolan, with the support of Peggy Harris, George Moran, and other borough council members, arranged for traffic patrols in Rocky Hill by South Bound Brook, primarily to reduce speeding on Washington Street/Route 518, Princeton Avenue, and Montgomery Avenue.
The South Bound Brook officers, as Zimmerman recalls, were contracted for about $50,000 and half-sharing the violation ticket revenue with the borough, for 50 hours per month, “13” months a year. The extra “month” was to allow budgeting for “specials,” such as roadside inspections of dangerously dilapidated vehicles. “It was a really good deal, which everyone loved, and was continued while I was mayor,” Zimmerman says. Due to scheduling issues, the South Bound Brook officers became unable to continue with the program. It was then taken over by Franklin Township officers, who continue it that role today. “Franklin is a terrific force,” says Zimmerman.
Beyond traffic enforcement
One future approach could be a formal “secure-and-hold” agreement with a neighboring municipality. Zimmerman says he was exploring such arrangements with Franklin Township until the end of his term as mayor. And today he raises the question of whether coverage by the NJ State Police Somerville Barracks, located in Bridgewater, would be a better fit for Rocky Hill. Zimmerman is quick to praise the troopers. “In my opinion, the State Police are the best trained, best organized, and most professional force in New Jersey, maybe in the country.” He cautions: “If we let go of the State Police, we can’t get them back.” Zimmerman recalls examples of NJSP outreach to Rocky Hill. For example, a State Police helicopter would land at the borough’s 4th of July picnic for awestruck local youngsters to walk around and examine it up close. “The NJ State Police are the best there is,” says Zimmerman. “I don’t want to lose them.”
Types of policing
Paul J. Hirschfield, director of the Program in Criminal Justice at Rutgers, studies American and international approaches to policing. He identifies three main types of police organizations: central (administered at the state or, in some foreign countries, national levels); local (for example, American county sheriffs); and hyper-local (town and township police departments). Prof. Hirschfield observes that the mission of the NJSP involves both central and local policing. Although organized at the state level, “it’s unusual that the NJ State Police were founded in part to fill holes [in rural coverage]. It’s more usual to have county sheriffs fulfill those needs.”
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Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. Hyper-local policing tends to be more responsive in speed and has ongoing knowledge of the community. But it can also be less standardized; reinforce local social, economic, and/or racial inequities, and be less accountable. Centrally-controlled policing typically has greater standardization of procedures; is more successful in holding local police accountable in the event of problems; and is paid from general state funds, not local budgets. But law enforcement organized on a state-wide basis can lose local connectedness. “Presumably Rocky Hill benefits from not having high policing costs,” says Prof. Hirschfield. “But they’re clearly getting less in terms of response.”
However, New Jersey is among the few states in which its Attorney General regulates the actions and procedures of local police forces via policy directives. “These are policies that the local police take very seriously,” Hirschfield says, citing the directive that all New Jersey police officers receive de-escalation training, helping prevent encounters with hostile or emotionally disturbed individuals from ending violently. “I think New Jersey comes closest to a healthy balance of local autonomy and external accountability,” says Prof. Hirschfield.
It remains to be seen what future decisions will be made by the Borough of Rocky Hill – and other small towns ably served for more than a century by the NJ State Police – to ensure the fastest as well as the finest service. “It’s a work in progress,” says Rocky Hill mayor Robert Uhrik. “But it’s top of the list.”