N.J. moves towards specialized training for top cops


By RALPH R. ORTEGA
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

NEWARK, New Jersey — After more than a quarter century as a patrolman, and years of coaching high school sports, Chris Mattson became the police chief of a small department in a rural farming town in northwestern New Jersey four months ago.

The state Association of Chiefs of Police wants a top cop like Mattson to attend executive and leadership training, to be best prepared to handle the administrative and managerial challenges awaiting most chiefs.

But Mattson confessed he has a limited schedule, and in fact is doing fine with the experience he brought to the job leading Lebanon Township's nine-member department since he was sworn in Sept. 5.

"This is not a knock on the chiefs' association," he said. "But in a department like this, I'm like a coach. I'm coaching a nine-member team."

Mattson's homegrown approach adds another side to how chiefs prepare for the job.

All must meet minimum standards set by the state Attorney General's Office. But chiefs also train to learn to be better managers and budget planners. Some have trained to face the threat of terrorism and school violence.

Then there are insurance carriers that require training, and personnel issues that make it practical for chiefs to brush up on subjects like sexual harassment.

Gone are the days of when an officer gets promoted, and just takes over the job, said Chatham Township Police Lt. George Petersen.

"It's not Mayberry anymore," said Petersen, a lead instructor for a popular leadership program developed by the chiefs association and U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Petersen encourages chiefs and subordinates to go for as much training as possible. He personally went as far as observing managerial training at the Royal Canadian Mounties for two weeks last year, and said he hopes a New Jersey version will soon be available.

There are an estimated 430 chiefs in New Jersey, according to the chiefs association, which has long advocated for higher-level executive training, and even took over a new chiefs orientation from the state Attorney General's Office in 2007.

Bridgewater Police Chief Richard Borden took the six-day course in May, along with 35 other newly appointed chiefs. Borden said he took the labor-intensive course 10 months after he was sworn in, and found it helpful as he was settling into the job. "You don't want to do it by a lot of trial and error," he said.

Critics, however, say the chiefs' association is beefing up the expertise of top cops to protect them from the threat of being replaced by civilian police directors.

"They don't want directors," said David M. DelVecchio, a former head of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, and mayor of Lambertville.

The city dropped uniformed police leadership after a period of mismanagement in the 1990s, and has employed two civilian police directors in the last nine years. Its current director, Bruce Cocuzza, is a retired New York City Police captain.

Regardless of experience, directors have been viewed as political pawns by uniformed leadership supporters, including police unions.

Mitch Sklar, executive director for the chiefs association, dismissed the suggestion the organization's push for training was a defense against directors.

"Obviously, we think there's a better choice," he said. "But it's not where we invest our time and resources."

The time it takes for training varies from a single day, to once a week for several months. The expense is usually picked up by towns, or sometimes covered by grants.

But for a small-town chief, operating on a tight schedule, training can seem out of reach. "It's just not going to happen," said Lebanon's Mattson.

Aside from administrative paperwork, Mattson has been busy trying to fill the hole left by his own promotion in September. There also had been a previous opening made by the retirement of former Chief Pamela Schell four months earlier.

Mattson said he just got his department back up to its normal complement of nine officers after the hiring of a new patrolman on Tuesday. The chief said he still expects to continue working alongside his officers on radar patrol, making school visits, and even answering the department phone.

One woman last month had called to report she had found two stray dogs.

"What kind of dogs were they? A black dog with a 3-inch tail, and what's the other one? A white dog with a poodle-type haircut," said Mattson after he took the call. He later said he was embarrassed it wasn't a more serious call, demonstrating his executive skills.

Within minutes, however, department secretary Kathy Goracy alerted him about a young suicidal person in need of a ride to a hospital for evaluation. Mattson, shifting into executive mode, decided the liability was too high for the department to provide the transportation, and asked Goracy to contact the local rescue squad.

His police-related decision-making, he said, is based on 26 years of experience in law enforcement. Some of his managerial skill, Mattson added, had come from his longtime involvement in high school sports.

Mattson, currently the head baseball coach at Voorhees High School, also has experience coaching football and basketball.

He said he wished he could attend the West Point program, but the department cannot afford to lose him or any officer because of vacation schedules and personal days racked up by veteran personnel.

While he's missing out on the program, Mattson said he's still comfortable in the job, treating his department like one of his teams. He also credited a close relationship with the community. Mattson has lived most of his life in Lebanon - a safe town with about 6,300 residents in Hunterdon County.

"This is not rocket science in a little family community like this," he said, eating cookies given to him by a resident who reported the theft of wood from his property.

The acting head of a similarly sized department in Sussex County did manage to find time to take the West Point course. Hamburg acting Capt. Jan Wright, one of two officers aspiring to be the new chief of police in town, called it the best class he's taken for the job because it applied to personnel management.
Wright attended the course at the Morris County Police Academy once a week for more than three months.

"Realistically, one day a week is not a killer around here," he said. "It was inconvenient at times, and it would have been a lot worse if I had a guy out with a broken leg."

Copyright 2008 Newark Morning Ledger Co.

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