NORTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Eight years ago Police Chief William Parenti decided to tell his officers to get out of their cars and start walking the beat in order build a greater bond between the public and his officers.
“The program is aimed at improving our visibility and accessibility and increasing public confidence in community-based policing,” said Parenti. “Sometimes an officer will spend their full 15 minutes on Somerset Street or Watchung Avenue, other times they go into a business and talk to the owners about concerns.
“Things police should do.”
Each hour from 4 to 10 p.m. during most of Daylight Savings Time, an officer parks the patrol car and walks the downtown for 15 minutes. While on foot patrol, the officers are expected to deal with incidents they encounter, gather intelligence, visit businesses, provide crime reduction advice, liaise with community groups and members such as Neighborhood Watch, collect and update business contact information and identify any potential problems.
Officer Albert Domizi, who joined the police force a week after the program began, enjoys his time out of the car more than anything else in his job. He performs it with such vigor that’s gotten a nickname among the people in the downtown.
“They call him ‘The Mayor’,” said Parenti.
On a walk-along with Domizi the business owners and customers were always glad to see him and talk about issues important to them.
At Pan de Casa, a very popular bakery on the south end of Somerset Street, customer Leonel Eduardo Erodinez DeLeon put down his chocolate covered plantain and approached Domizi with a parking ticket in his hand. DeLeon had never met Domizi before, but said he felt an instant comfort with the officer.
“I love myself, and so I have nothing to hide,” said DeLeon. “I trust the North Plainfield police; its better here than in some other towns.”
Speaking in a mix of Spanish and English, Domizi explained the process for paying the ticket. Domizi, whose family is from Argentina, speaks Spanish and that helps a lot with the large population of people who speak the language in the business district. Many of the officers speak Spanish, but not all do. Fortunately there are often bi-lingual people in the downtown who are happy to act as translators.
As Domizi started to leave, Juan Flores walked in and greeted him with a big handshake and smile. Flores had been a North Plainfield resident, but had recently moved to Raritan. He’d come back to purchase some baked goods at Pan de Casa, but was so happy to see the officer he offered to buy him a cup of coffee. Domizi declined, and after speaking for about five minutes they shook hands again and separated.
“I don’t know about other departments, but we’re a small community here and our department wants to be part of the community, to interact with the public,” said Domizi about the reception he received. “We don’t want to be standoffish, but to greet them daily so they feel comfortable speaking with us when they need help.”
Usually when an officer is doing their 15 minutes of walking they can get to only a half dozen stores or so, and sometimes fewer when there are residents or business owners who want to talk.
“I usually only get to a handful of stores,” said Domizi. “People feel comfortable talking to me and I spend a lot of time with them.”
At Tesoro Salvadoreno, a Salvadorian restaurant on the Plainfield border, owner Luis Chaves talked warmly about his relationship with the local police force.
“The police of North Plainfield is like family. We see them walking by when they are passing by or checking the parking lot,” said Chaves. “We have a really good relationship.”
Tesoro has been open since 1995, and serves a Central American cuisine with a hint of Mediterranean flavors that Chaves picked up working in Italian restaurants when he broke in to the business. It does a brisk trade when soccer games are on, and often the home-country of the clientele depends on what games are on.
Domizi came by to give Chaves a form to fill out with information on a new alarm system and company for the police department’s records. Often officers take the time to pass out paperwork and other simple issues while they were on their walk.
Chaves likes that the police walk the downtown during the evening hours, and particularly likes it when they park their cruiser in his lot while they’re on their 15 minute walk because it shows that there’s an active police presence there. In fact, he asked for a “dummy car” to be parked out front on Somerset Street.
“That’s the trust that we have with the public,” said Dimozi. “And that they have with us.”