RARITAN, NJ - For Sheriff Frank Provenzano, who is retiring from his position at the end of this year after 18 years in the office, serving the community where he grew up is a passion.
“Serving the community is a big thing, I think it’s paying back and it’s very gratifying,” he said.
Born and raised in Bradley Gardens, Provenzano’s family moved to Bridgewater from New York City, and then he moved to Raritan in 1965 after he got married. He has been there ever since.
After graduating from Somerville High School in 1961, Provenzano decided to become a police officer, like a number of the guys he had gone to school with.
“It all started when I met some state troopers, they used to come talk to us,” he said. “In my yearbook, we projected what we thought we were going to become, and I always said state police.”
Provenzano said he went to Sea Girt in 1968, to a municipal class run by state police. It was six weeks living in the barracks on a military base.
“The state police were starting to take it over to use as a training facility, and it was the best six weeks I ever spent,” he said. “You had to be on the black top at attention at 6 a.m. Monday morning, and you left at 5 p.m. Friday, then you spent all weekend studying to get ready for the week.”
And over the years, Provenzano has been to different trainings, including Narcotics Investigation School and Hypnosis School, and he became a trained dive and rescue diver.
Provenzano said he joined the Bridgewater Police Department in 1968, three years after its inception in 1965.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to serve the community and area I lived in,” he said. “And being a new police department, and with the way the township was growing, I thought there was a chance of moving up the ranks.”
Provenzano served in Bridgewater until 2001, when new opportunities began to take shape.
“I was the captain that was the liaison to the Bridgewater Commons Mall that had come a few years before that,” he said. “I became friendly with the security there.”
Provenzano said he was offered a job working security in another mall, and he decided to take it.
But then the local community came calling again.
“The prosecutor and mayor in Raritan knew I was retiring from Bridgewater, and they knew the present sheriff in 2001 was not running for re-election,” he said. “So they came to me.”
At first, Provenzano said, he said no to running for sheriff, but after a conversation with his wife, he decided to take the leap. He officially retired from the Bridgewater Police Department in 2001, and began his campaign for sheriff right away.
“I thought originally that after being there for all those years, I was going to get into the security business,” he said. “But I decided to run for sheriff and do my best to win that election.”
That was the start of a career as sheriff that has led to the development of a number of programs that aid the county, as well as more trainings and drills to keep officers sharp.
Over the years, Provenzano said, he has put together Project Lifesaver, the K9 unit, a gang intelligence unit, a child safety seat program and much more.
“The day to day job, we have meetings with the other sheriff’s warden, calls for service for the K9 unit and security in the courthouse is one of our main functions,” he said of a day in the life of the sheriff. “The sheriff’s office also has foreclosure sales, with an auction every Tuesday.”
Provenzano said that one of the things he has emphasized over his terms is to make the public more aware of their surroundings.
“When you get out of the car at the mall, look around first, lock your door,” he said. “When people come out of the mall and get in the car, they get right on their cell phones. Lock the door first.”
“People have to understand that the world is changing, and we are staying on top of things,” he added.
Provenzano said the sheriff’s office holds active shooting drills at the courthouse, human services building and the Somerset County Vocational & Technical High School, among other locations, consistently.
“We have two officers at the school now,” he said. “The kids like it, the officers are not stern, they are friendly with the kids and they go to the after school programs too.”
Provenzano said he is also proud of the Project Lifesaver program, which partners with the Office of Aging.
“It’s been working fantastic,” he said of the program in which those who are older or have health problems wear a bracelet so they can be tracked in the event of an emergency or other circumstance. “We put together a search and rescue team, with the K9 team and two tracking dogs.”
The office also has an explosive detecting K9 dog to check suspicious packages, and the dog is part of Homeland Security New Jersey, and can go wherever needed around the state.
“Knock on wood, we haven’t found explosives yet, and don’t want to,” he said.
Provenzano said his biggest accomplishment throughout his time as sheriff has been to make the community more aware of what the office does, and that they are there to serve and protect.
“We are out there protecting all citizens,” he said. “Sometimes we get called in from other counties, and help them.”
“I think the goal is to make people more aware that we are here and we are here to serve them,” he added. “We work with very department in the county.”
Provenzano said he is also proud to have helped bring the department into the 21st century, replacing old typewriters with computers, starting a SWAT team, looking at active shooter programs and more.
“We had to learn to adapt, and sometimes we had to improvise,” he said. “I give credit to my guys, they are a wealth of knowledge, and they come up with great ideas. I tell them to dig deeper, and that they should look into it because they come up with it. It gives them pride.”
Other programs his office has sponsored have included Project Medicine Drop to collect unused pills and medicines, as well as senior programs to discuss phone scams.
Provenzano said working in the sheriff’s office is certainly much different from being an officer in a local department.
“I was on the road as an officer, responding to calls and keeping my eyes open when patrolling,” he said. “What we have (in the sheriff’s office) is more programs for the community.”
“The departments do a fantastic job, and I thank them for what they do, and thank them for helping us,” he added. “I tell every chief in the county, call us if you need us.”
And Provenzano said they have provided assists to all departments, for example during the Basilone Parade, particularly several years ago when there was an explosion during a Marine 5K run in Seaside Heights, just a week before the parade honoring late Marine John Basilone.
“We increased our presence there, and brought in more K9 units,” he said. “And we took the garbage cans off the street.”
“That’s what we do, we have our officers go out there to assist the other departments,” he added.
Provenzano said there are 179 sworn officers in the department, including the sheriff and four undersheriffs.
With about three-quarters of his life spent in law enforcement, Provenzano said he is ready to take a step back.
“It’s time for me to relax, and not get a text at 2 a.m.,” he said. “It’s time to retire and spend more time with my wife.”
But, Provenzano said, he also knows that as much as he would like to just do more fishing, he won’t be able to fully rest.
“I can’t sit stagnant,” he said. “I’m not a couch potato.”
Provenzano said it is satisfying to know he has left a mark in the county.
“There are always peaks and valleys, and bumps in the road,” he said. “But I think it is really satisfying to serve the community. And with all the people I’ve met, tens of thousands throughout Somerset County and now throughout the state, knowing so many in the legislature, friends over the years, guys who have retired, that’s the biggest thing.”
Provenzano said he has also hired somewhere between 180 and 200 people over his 18 years, and he looks for people who are passionate about helping the community.
“We are very different from the local police, in that we don’t work weekends except for special details that we get grants for and such,” he said. “Local police work on weekends, holidays, it’s part of the territory. Police officers don’t get enough respect.”
Provenzano said the sheriff’s office provides security for the general who attends the Basilone Parade, and one year, he discussed being in charge of 25,000 men in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“He turned to me and said, ‘you take care of the home games, I’ll take care of the away games,’” Provenzano said.
“Sometimes people get the wrong perception of the sheriff’s office, but it’s the proudest job I’ve ever had,” he added. “I will be here until Dec. 31 enjoying every minute of it.”