A Conversation with Chief Robert James

Conversation with Northfield / Linwood chief Robert James at Northfield Police Station.

Edward Lea

Chief Robert James has one of the more unusual positions in New Jersey law enforcement: He is chief of two separate police departments, Northfield and Linwood. James, 49, of Buena, spoke about some of the challenges he and the departments have faced, as well as the changing face of law enforcement in an era of crunched budgets, lawsuits and concerns over school security.

Q: Talk a bit about your background and your career up until becoming chief in Northfield and taking over in Linwood.

A: I started my law-enforcement career back in 1985 for the Buena Borough Police Department. I was there from about 1985 to about 1989, and joined the Northfield Police Department from there as a patrolman, worked my way into becoming a detective and up the ranks until November 2006, when I was promoted to chief of police for the city of Northfield.

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Then, in 2011, negotiations became rather fast-paced in what they were talking about between Linwood and Northfield and the potential for one police chief to manage both agencies.

I was asked if I was interested in it. I’m still young, somewhat, and I enjoy my job, and I looked at it as an opportunity to make a positive impact in both communities.

So doing that, in July 2011 ... I became the chief of police for both agencies.

It’s rather … unusual is the best way to say it, because it’s not commonplace. It has only happened in New Jersey less than a handful of times that I’m aware of, and right now, Linwood and Northfield have one of the longest tenures of doing it as a shared service between municipalities.

The agreement is basically that I manage the day-to-day operations for both police departments, and I structure my day so that I am in both buildings, working with personnel, talking with personnel, and the public, to manage the functions that need to be managed from this office.

I maintain an office here in the city of Northfield, and I maintain an office in the city of Linwood.

Q: What are some of the difficulties and challenges involved in the running of two departments?

A: Each law-enforcement agency, just like in life, there’s a culture.

In Northfield, I was used to a culture here. And knowing that I was going into another law-enforcement agency that could have a different culture — (it is) similar in type, but different in nature.

Knowing that, I tried to be careful in my interactions with the department, as well as the public, that I was there to help the agency, help the community, I wasn’t coming in the door to make wide-scale changes out of the gate.

What we’ve looked at doing is trying to improve the level of law-enforcement services to both communities. And trying to achieve that, what we’ve tried to do is foster better communication and better cooperation between both departments, helping each other out whenever possible.

One of the things we looked at first was the communications contract. Linwood was dispatched on an older frequency through Somers Point Police Department. Northfield has been on the county 800 (megahertz) band with Egg Harbor Township since 1996.

We had some issues with communication equipment in Linwood, and I used that as an opportunity to get the Linwood Police Department on the 800 (MHz) band with a lot of county agencies.

What we did is we put both departments on the common talk route, so that the cars can communicate back and forth with each other. If somebody needs help, it’s a matter of seconds away. And it lends itself to fostering a better sense of cooperation between the two departments.

Q: What are some of the differences in cultures in the departments, and in the towns as well? What are some of the differences in what the departments deal with daily?

A: When we talk about cultures in the agency, it comes down to: What are some of the things that came up in that department as people are socialized in that department? And what (are) their expectations of the community?

The expectations in both towns are pretty similar. They’re looking for the police officers to be the caretaker, be the watchmen of the community, but also at the same time they’re looking for more enforcement in terms of issues involving quality-of-life issues: traffic complaints, nuisance complaints and (things) like that.

We’ve looked at both departments in terms of how we’re accomplishing that function and what we can do to better accomplish that function, and at the same time try to get better cooperation from the community. We just started a really phenomenal program that was suggested by (Officer Jim Norris) in Linwood.

It’s a matter of, when officers see a problem with a house, whether it’s daytime or nighttime, it’s a matter of leaving a little notice on the house to let the homeowner that A: We were there, and B: We saw something that, if you addressed this, would probably make your house a little bit safer, or your business a little bit safer.

Those are the things I think the community wants, and I know the police department’s doing it. ... When an officer’s checking a store at 3 a.m., now people know that he’s out there doing his job.

And we’re looking to make a more palatable, noticeable impact, so that residents and businesses know we’re out there doing our job and we’re looking after their welfare.

Q: In terms of the differences between the two towns, has something ever happened during the course of working in Linwood where you would have said, “Wow, this has never happened in Northfield; this is a first”?

A: What I can say is where Linwood is unique to Northfield is that Linwood is the home to Mainland Regional High School.

Having a 9-12 (grade) high school facility definitely brings with it a host of issues and questions. We’re very fortunate to have a very good relationship with (Mainland Superintendent Tom) Baruffi and (Principal Mark) Marrone. We have a great working relationship, an open dialogue back and forth.

(There are) things I didn’t have to worry about in Northfield, where we have a K-8 system, (because) 9-12 is a different beast all of itself. And we’re very fortunate that we have a great relationship and have a lot of positive things going on with that.

Q: You were talking before about how unique the situation is. Talking with other chiefs, at the Association of Chiefs of Police or conventions or things like that, what have you heard from other chiefs? Has anyone said, “Wow, two departments?”

A: The biggest issue was, first of all, can it even happen?

I know that there are various statutes that some people will say cannot make it happen (or) can make it happen. When this issue was first brought to us, actually, brought to me, that was the first question I asked. I don’t know the legalities of this.

At that time, the municipal solicitor for Northfield, Mr. Keith Bonchi, did the research and wrote an opinion paper. After a while, we were actually getting questions from the state Department of Community Affairs on whether or not this was a direction we could go in.

When the day was done, we sent the opinion of Mr. Bonchi up to the Department of Community Affairs. Their attorneys reviewed it and absolutely said that (because of) the Shared Service Act of 2007 ... that it could happen, that it was possible and probable.

I know that I’ve fielded questions throughout the state about it, how it happened. It depends on the towns involved, the personalities involved.

I will say this: I am very fortunate and blessed that I have good command staff in both departments. And that’s how I accomplish my job. My job is to go around, review, delegate and assist in the decision-making process.

The command staff in both the Linwood Police Department and the Northfield Police Department stepped up to the plate and are working with us in terms of providing the best services that we can, not only to the communities but also to the employees.

Q: You mentioned dispatch. What are the other things that you’ve done or are looking at investigating in terms of shared services?

A: What we’re also looking at is (that) the vehicle maintenance for the Linwood Police Department is privatized. And in Northfield, it is run through a mechanic at the city garage. Because of some injury issues, Northfield also has had to utilize private services for some of the vehicle maintenance for the police fleet.

So what we have looked at doing is trying to take both fleets together in terms of going out to proposal to see if we can find a vendor that’s, A: interested in the work, and B: try to get what we consider the best price we can to get the work done.

(It’s) not necessarily merging the fleets together, but if I can put the fleets together and try to get my best price to get the work done, then I think it’s a win-win for the community and for the police department at the same time.

Q: You took over in Linwood during the whole situation where the previous chief, Jim Baker, had been sued by his own department. (Baker was accused by two of his officers and the family of Katherine McGowan of ordering officers to lie that they had offered McGowan protection before she was killed by a neighbor in 2009. The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office monitored the department for months before clearing Baker of wrongdoing.) What was it like taking over in that specific period, and what have you done within the department in Linwood since then to move on from that situation?

A: The first day that I had the opportunity to take over the department, we brought the department in, sat them down and had a meeting. I told them what I was looking at doing and laid the cards on the table, that I’m here to manage the department, and that I’m also tasked with looking at ways of increasing shared services and potentially saving municipalities money.

What it comes down to is I think sometimes there’s a difference in management philosophies and styles. I’m a proponent of managing by walking around. I believe in being out, I believe in meeting and talking to people. And I kind of hoped that that was the personality style that the department needed at that present time.

The chief leads from the front. I’m not saying that I’m always out there, but I try to get out there. If I see an opportunity to help an officer out on the street or help the detectives, I absolutely believe that you should.

Those are the things we look at in terms of trying to show those officers that there was no hidden agenda. ... I’m just trying to be a good leader.

Q: I know it is an ongoing investigation and the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office is handling it, but what was it like less than a year into the job in Linwood having to deal with the situation surrounding the April Kauffman homicide? (Kauffman was found dead of gunshot wounds May 10, 2012, in her Linwood home. There has been no arrest in the case.)

A: It’s an extremely unfortunate situation. I will tell you that it is an ongoing investigation, and I’m very limited as to what I’m permitted to discuss about that investigation. But what I can say is (that) we hope that the end result is that we have justice for April Kauffman, and her family as well.

Q: Like all departments, your departments have to deal with issues such as complaints and lawsuits, whether frivolous or whether they end up with settlements. How does that litigious culture change how police departments operate?

A: In this day and age we live in, you now have patrol cars that have video in the cars. There are cameras, there are microphones everywhere you go.

And the officers are cognizant of that fact. They actually are cognizant when they go into a situation that the probability of them being recorded, either by the car system or someone else out on the street, is great. And by doing so, I think ... it actually lends itself to less problems on the street.

There’s going to come a day and time, and I know it’s starting in this state, where officers are going to get to the point where they’re wearing cameras, what we call “body cameras,” on their person as they’re interacting with the public.

I remember in my career when cameras first were (brought) on the street 20-some-odd years ago. It was culture shock. It absolutely was.

We have socialized a generation of police officers now, though, in both departments, that understands the purpose of the cameras. The cameras are there to defend them so that if something were to happen, there’s an independent witness besides a member of the public, besides another police officer — an independent witness that can give veracity as to what’s happening out there, both by the visual and also the audio from the microphone on the officer’s belt.

Q: I was at one of the two meetings that took place in Linwood where parents got together at the Belhaven school, also one at Seaview, and talked about increased school security in the post-Newtown era. Talk about what you said then about what’s doable in school security and what’s not doable despite what parents may want, and where you think this is going.

A: When we look at the future in terms of looking at those ideas, we have to see what’s possible, we have to see what’s probable, and we have to see what’s preferable. And when I say preferable, there’s a delicate balance between a secure educational facility and creating something that is almost a minimum-security facility.

There is a lot of emotion in the post-Newtown era, and we have to sort through that and try to make our school facilities as secure as we want them to be, in the best of terms.

But at the same time, they’re supposed to be educational facilities. They’re public buildings. We encourage the public, we encourage the parents to be a part of their children’s educational process and to be at all the activities that the schools have to offer.

That’s how we have to look at it from a police angle of not only trying to make this facility secure, but also in this era of diminishing resources, we’re trying to do the best we can with what we have, in trying to live within the 2 percent (tax levy) cap law.

And in doing that, we’ve decided in both Northfield and Linwood that security is everyone’s responsibility. It’s just not one or two people here or there. So what we’ve asked and what we’ve challenged our people to do is we’re going to be very frequent, we’re going to be very noticeable and we’re going to be showing up at unpredictable times.

What we’ve done is, working with both school districts, is the officers will, if they have some down time, they’re going to pick a school at random, and they’re going to do a walk through the school. It could be in the morning; it could be in the afternoon; it could be at lunchtime. That’s solely up to the discretion of the officers, with input from their supervisors.

Not only does it give the staff and the children peace of mind, but it also is a great barrier-breaker in terms of getting cooperation between the police, the staff and the children — to see that the officers are there to help, the officers are there to protect them.

Q: You mentioned the 2 percent cap. What are some of the difficulties in putting together police budgets?

A: In terms of that, there are some things we have to work with, and a lot of it is manpower costs. We have and we maintain a firm control on our operational expenses, that side of the budget. When you talk about contractual obligations, when you talk about health care increases and the like, that does factor in to that 2 percent over time, and it becomes an unfortunate reality when you’re looking at a budget and you need increases in X, but you can only go up Y. And that is the hard part of it.

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