The Blue Magazine recently sat down with New Jersey State Police Superintendent, Colonel Patrick J. Callahan. In this uncensored interview, you will hear directly from the new leader of the NJ State Police. Colonel Callahan is a man on the move with many ambitions and goals. He truly cares for the men and women of the State Police and his leadership is straightforward and impressive. Blue Magazine thanks Colonel Callahan and the New Jersey State Police.
The Blue Magazine: What is your vision as it relates to the New Jersey State Police? Where do you want to take this agency?
Colonel Callahan: I think the New Jersey State Police is viewed as one of the premier law enforcement agencies in the country, which is a special place to be. As I often have said, we didn’t get here by accident. We got here because of the work of the men and women, and certainly, the leadership of Colonel Fuentes was critical in that reputation. We’re coming up on our 100th anniversary in a couple of years, in 2021 and my vision, although broad, is always to leave it better than I found it. And I found it in pretty good condition. I think we need to continue to be viewed as one of those premiere law enforcement agencies that when people are struggling and other agencies are struggling with a challenge and they say what’s the New Jersey State Police doing about it? And we’re able to provide them an answer and make their agencies better.
You are the son of a Major. How important is it for the men and women troopers that their leader comes from among them?
I think it’s critical that the superintendent and colonel come from within the New Jersey State Police because there’s an understanding of the culture, there’s an understanding in the processes, as I like to say. I think being a road trooper was the best part of my career and don’t forget where I came from and that’s a road trooper. I think for an outsider to come in and be appointed in that regard, if we say don’t forget where you came from, the vast majority of the troopers are going to say, “Well he or she didn’t come from here.” I think it will be a tough transition to carry on being the Colonel having not been in the New Jersey State Police. Not to say that there are not phenomenal directors and people who couldn’t do this role. I just think they would be up to some serious challenges with regard to the acceptance of the men and women. My father retired as a Major after serving 29 years in the State Police and my grandfather was a Linden police officer for 32 years. So, I can never remember anything other than wanting to be a New Jersey trooper. To sit here today in this role, it’s surreal, humbling, and certainly an honor.
What are you doing now to promote diversity within this organization?
It’s a daily conversation for us. The Attorney General recently implemented an inclusion and diversity plan which all the divisions within the Department of Law and Public Safety are implementing plans. We’re probably light years ahead of the other Divisions in our Department not only because of the consent decree, but also because of our association and relationship with the NAACP. We meet almost monthly with the NAACP. Our challenge in this day and age is getting qualified minority candidates to apply at the front end. In our last selection process, we only had 13% of those who applied of 10,000 were black male candidates. Ten percent took the written exam, that left nine percent to go into the academy and although we had only five resign from the academy. When you start with only 13%, you’re never going to be able to have those diverse numbers that represent the demographics of New Jersey. It’s important to the public to be served by the people they can relate to, certainly from an ethnic background, even with regards to gender. We struggle with recruiting women and our female representation is low and we can certainly make improvements in this area. Overall, I think we do a great job with minority recruiting. This demographics of our last State Police class was 60% caucasian and 40% minority. The 151st class, I think was 51% minority a few years back, so we’re doing okay, but there’s always room for improvement. Our recruiting efforts include but aren’t limited to: social media, colleges, and college sports teams. We just need to focus on a very targeted recruitment strategy. So, at that front end when we say the State Police is opening up a process, our goal is to have qualified and diverse men and women that reflect the people in the State of New Jersey.
What’s the strategy breaking down that wall?
I think it starts early. I think maybe even elementary school and middle school. If we’re waiting until high school to try and connect with the youth in our communities, we may have missed the mark. I think those children and students in those communities need to see law enforcement as coaches, Sunday school teachers, mothers, fathers, and they all have to put in an effort that I call, humanizing the badge. They have to see us as part of their community. It kills me to hear that somebody won’t call 9-1-1 because they don’t want the police to show up. That mindset is realistic in some communities and even in some families.
We hear young troopers are leaving for municipal jobs and county jobs that are paying higher. What do you do about that?
I think back to the time when the State Police was the pinnacle of law enforcement and “The Triangle” could hold you here. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. People have families and people have mortgages, and other financial obligations. Certainly, the salary freeze that’s been in place for the past 4 ½ years hurts us not only on a recruiting standpoint but certainly on a retention standpoint. When you’re promised X when you come out of the academy, and that doesn’t happen, it’s tough to keep men and women motivated especially in the line of work that they do. When troopers don’t start seeing their paycheck go up, it’s tough when you’re trying to keep morale up, which sometimes has a tendency to hover around ankle high. But none of us took this job to be rich or to be wealthy. But they should be compensated appropriately. I do think a contract, a fair contract would help us retain and help us recruit. It’s hard for a trooper making 70,000 dollars to turn down 130,000 dollars for a job going to a county prosecutor’s office or a town. I can’t blame them for leaving, but I won’t beg them to stay. I think somewhere down the line they may regret that decision to leave, but again it’s a reality. We have lost 21 in the last two years--troopers with fewer than four years that have gone to other law enforcement agencies. 80% of them have been minority troopers. So to fall back on our talk of minority recruitment, we invest a lot of time and energy and hours in minority recruitment to have 80% of those 21 be minorities, it’s tough, it’s a challenge for us, we’re trying to combat daily.
You are the new director of emergency management for the state, is there anything you would like to change in this new position? What are you doing to prepare for the next catastrophic event?
Emergency management is something that’s near and dear to my heart. I was not in emergency management until shortly after Sandy made a left turn into the State of New Jersey. I think it changed the course of my career. It was a catastrophic event, but it allowed me the opportunity to work with the governor’s office--to work with our partners in emergency management and FEMA, and to build what is now the recovery bureau, which before Sandy it was a couple of people, now it’s approximately 50 plus people. The experience of trying to get New Jersey back to some sense of normalcy was an invaluable challenge for me.
As far as change goes, I think we could do better. I think we need to set actual criteria for emergency managers. In some towns, the mayor may just make a police chief or just appoint somebody that they think can do the job. But it’s too critical of a position to just throw in a friend in that position. I think we need to have professional certified emergency managers at all levels to ensure the safety of the citizens we serve. I think across the board we do a pretty good job at that, but I think we can do better and ensure that those emergency managers are really on top of their game. I used to say to the mayors when I had the chance to talk and listen, if you’re getting to know your emergency manager when a storm is making landfall, you have a serious problem on your hands.
How is the State Police responding to the opioid crisis that’s claiming the lives of many, many people of all ages?
It’s a multiple pronged approach. I think we have an Attorney General that took a good approach when he was the Bergen County Prosecutor. It’s been often said by a lot more people other than me, we will not arrest ourselves out of this opioid epidemic. We are on track to lose 70,000 people in the United States this year from accidental overdoses. That to me is a shocking number and evidence of how devastating this epidemic is.
Does every trooper have Narcan?
Yes, every trooper has Narcan, I have it in my car. I think that we need to look at recovery. The Attorney General had started a program called Operation Helping Hands knowing that they were going to go out and do a sweep they had beds lined up at hospitals. They have recovery coaches there in the station where they were being processed. Not that the people weren’t going to be charged with possession of heroin, they were going to leave from there green sheeted, but they were going to leave there with that resource if they chose to use it. The goal was when they went to be sentenced for, six months later, they were still going to be clean, and the prosecutor’s office can pass that information up to the judge, and hope for a lenient sentence. I think the numbers he had in Bergen almost 40 to 50% of those were still clean six months after being arrested. To me, if you saved one life, you’ve saved a family from that tragedy of dealing with that accidental overdose.
What can be done to combat this suicide among law enforcement officers?
It starts with the conversation and not being afraid to have the discussion. An officer or trooper that’s mentally not healthy is not going to serve the public well. It’s the stigmatism of worrying about being depressed or not feeling right; that’s what we have to break down. And that’s not easy to do in any profession, certainly not in law enforcement with Type A personalities, the big and tough, and “we can handle it” attitudes, but it’s things that we’re exposed to in our day to day jobs that we cannot control. Whether it’s death, a tragic event, or domestic violence, it can all wear on you. After a trooper committed suicide last year, last November we started the Office of Peer Advocacy with the hopes of making it okay for troopers to talk about how they are doing. I say it’s not a rhetorical question, when we say how are you doing? I don’t want to only hear okay. I think it’s important for troopers that work with other troopers to know if they are in a squad with 10 troopers, and one is struggling with let’s say alcoholism, I think we need to give those troopers and squad mates the permission to talk about their friend because sometimes without that you’re sometimes seen as a traitor and now internal affairs is involved. Again, it’s a tough culture, but if we are really trying to save people from themselves, we have to have that conversation, we have to have the resources in place for troopers to go and sit down and talk about it, while working through counseling and whatever other means we can have in order to make sure that they can go about their day-to-day routine and serve the public without bringing their baggage and issues to the interaction.
What would you tell the officer right now who would read this interview and have an issue and is contemplating suicide? What would you tell them if they read this paragraph what would it be?
No problem is insurmountable and I know that’s not easy when you’re in that dark place. When you’re struggling with whatever it is and you can fill in the blank with whatever your problems may be or have been. This network of help is not only with the law enforcement family but also with the resources that we have out there; again the contemplation of suicide is just that; it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem and we want the individuals struggling to understand that.
What happens if I go to the Colonel and I say, Colonel, I have a problem?
I think my commitment to being out there for the troopers as often as possible, whether at a station visit or on patrol is important. Last year, I spoke at every single in-service for seven weeks in a row. I was getting up and driving from Warren County and standing there and talking to them about this issue among others. I admitted when I needed to talk to someone and called our Employees Assistance Program Director, Jim Nestor. I was stressed out when my wife was in Haiti during the earthquake and I also had a family member was struggling with mental illness. These were stressful issues that I was exposed to and I let the 2,800 men and women in the State Police know that I picked up the phone and I had Jim Nestor on speed dial. Jim helped coach me through what I was feeling and why.
Troopers can certainly call me and there are a lot of troops out there that have my cellphone number. When it comes to that chain of command, I want to be approachable and make these certain exceptions. I let these troopers know that I am here for them, including the trooper who just was in the hospital this week because we are family. I think they need to know that they can call me, they can call peer advocacy, they can call a counselor, and that’s not going to end their job. If they pick up their gun and get to that decision point and commit suicide, that’s it, I tell them that is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. My exposure to suicide over the last couple of years here with troopers killing themselves is a tragedy. I do think it’s always preventable and that’s the other hard part, you know, if only they had picked up the phone, we never saw it coming. I think the troopers know that they can call and they can knock on this door. This door is never closed, literally or figuratively, but I think it’s important that they know that everyone struggles with stressful issues and they should never hesitate to pick up the phone.
Can you speak directly to the road trooper and the officer on the streets, what’s your message to them?
I think as law enforcement I talk about that in the broadest terms because something that happens in Seattle, Washington might as well happen here. When an officer gets arrested, charged with a crime or indicted, that’s an indictment of all of us, it’s a broad brush and people won’t hesitate to paint us with that broad brush, that’s what I say about winning every interaction, whether you’re a cop out in the street in Newark, whether you’re in Millville, whether you’re in Atlantic City, whether you’re a trooper on the Turnpike, we have to win every interaction. And I mean that in the way we treat people with respect and dignity. Commissioner Ramsey from Philly used to say it the best. Some folks come into this world with next to nothing. They were kind of born with two strikes against them, maybe from an economic standpoint, broken family, the one thing that they have is their dignity and if you try to take it from them, they’re going to fight you for it, as they should, but don’t ever try to take anybody’s dignity. You can lock people up with heroin or guns and who have broken the law, but you must treat them with respect.
What’s the greatest threat law enforcement faces today?
The greatest threat is probably lack of trust, I would say. That’s tough to overcome. When a law enforcement officer gets arrested, that’s a story because we’re held to a higher standard, and we should be held to a higher standard. At the last state police graduation, I said, “embrace the scrutiny.” I think we need to embrace it and understand that when we raise our right hand and say I’ll do this to the best of my ability, then that’s going to come with some additional scrutiny being embraced because of what I talked about earlier. Your whole town knows you’re a trooper and if you get locked up for shoplifting, or you get locked up for DWI, it’s a trooper who got locked up for DWI.
Who are you when you get out of this uniform, and you’re home, who is the Colonel?
I am, I think first and foremost, a firm believer in God. I am passionate about mission. I’m passionate about helping people who just because of where they were born into circumstances that they cannot change. I do think, whether I’m in this uniform or I’m out of it that we’re tasked with serving as the hands and feet of God.. I think service is who I am about not only as a trooper, but as someone who knows that there are people out there in need. I consider myself someone who’s been given much and as the verse says, much is then required of me. There’s a lot of people out there who need to know they are cared for. When I go home at the end of the day and take this uniform off, I mow my own lawn, I vacuum my own pool, I care about my neighbors, whether they are the ones right next door to me, or whether they are halfway around the world.
Eventually you’ll move on as everybody that has come before you, therefore, what do you want your legacy to be?
I want to be known as a Jersey trooper. I say it often. I never get caught up about insignias being pinned on shoulders. I understand we’re a paramilitary organization, I totally understand that, but when people ask me what I did for a living when I’m gone, I’m going to say I was a Jersey Trooper. I probably won’t introduce myself as the former Colonel because saying I was a Jersey Trooper sums it up in the two simplest words. I am big on tradition. I am often asked about changing the uniform, that won’t ever happen while I am serving in this role. I stand with those thousands of troopers that have come before me all the way back to the first Colonel who have proudly worn this uniform while serving the citizens of New Jersey.