• Joseph F. Berenato

3 new hires, 3 retire at Hammonton Police Department


Members of council posed with the Hammonton 10U Boys Baseball Team, which was honored at the October 25 meeting. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato)

HAMMONTON—At the October 25 meeting of town council, Hammonton Police Chief Kevin Friel announced personnel additions to the police department.


“As we have been continuing on to provide the best police service that we can for our community, and we’ve been trying to increase the number of officers that we have—at least to 34—we have expounded upon the new law that we have accepted with our ordinance to be able to hire already-certified officers,” Friel said.


That ordinance, Ordinance No. 009-2021, amending Chapter 51 of the general ordinances of the town of Hammonton to add section 51-2(C) allowing an exemption from civil service examination, was adopted and published on June 28.


“That actually puts us leaps and bounds ahead of where we would normally be. Instead of waiting for officers to be hired off the civil service list, go to the academy, be trained, come out and then start with field training, we have sped up the process by looking for officers that are already certified,” Friel said.


Friel said that the department has found three officers “that would fit that bill.”


“One, helping to backfill some experience that we have lost in our department due to officers going to other agencies in prior years, and two that are like ready-made starter kids; we’re picking them up right as they are graduating the academy, which has saved our community at least 21 weeks of waiting for them to go through an academy,” Friel said.


Friel then described the three candidates to council.


“The first one would be a gentleman who has 12 years of military experience and is currently in Atlantic County’s police academy, which is one of the two state hybrid academies—which would be applicable to this law; the law states that anyone who has attended a basic police officer hybrid academy is eligible to be hired under this new law ... his name is Matthew Hiser,” Friel said, noting that Hiser was set to graduate the academy on October 28.


The second candidate was Harry Valentin, whom Friel said “will be certainly a great attribute to our community, as we have had a few of our Hispanic officers retire in the past.”


“This gentleman is also in the current basic police academy for Atlantic County hybrid academy. He also was a police officer in New York City before coming here to the town of Hammonton to be with his mother. Both his mother and father were detectives in the New York City Police Department, but unfortunately his father succumbed to an illness—9/11 illness—and passed away, so he wanted to come here to support his mom,” Friel said.


Friel said that these two individuals would be hired at Step 2, which starts at $43,600 annually.


Friel said that the third individual, Richard Brown—who was in the audience during the council meeting—has “military experience and over eight years of police experience, currently working in the city of Egg Harbor.”


“He has certifications and attributes that will help our police department. He is SWAT certified. He is a firearms instructor. He’s RADAR certified. He’s been through detective training, so another gentleman who would certainly increase what the capabilities of our police department has,” Friel said, noting that Brown would be hired at Step 9—because of his experience and certifications—at $63,400 annually.


Friel said that these hires are coming ahead of the retirements of three officers. Both Lt. Edward Slimm and Cpl. Richard Jones will be retiring effective January 1, 2022, and Sgt. Christopher Clements will be retiring effective February 1, 2022.


“We want to be proactive not to leave our community behind in what police service that they deserve and that they should have. We want to make sure that we have officers prepared and ready, out there on the streets, so that we’re not left shorthanded. Unfortunately, in the condition that we’ve been in through the COVID pandemic and through military deployments, we’ve been, at times—and I hate to say this—almost one-third of our staffing off of the roster not out there to help and protect the public,” Friel said.


Mayor Stephen DiDonato said that, until the retirements, the hiring of the three officers will bring the total number of police officers to 35.


“Ultimately, we want to maintain 34. I sat in the interviews of the three gentlemen that the chief is recommending, and I was blown away. All three were tremendous individuals—tremendous officers they’re going to be for the town of Hammonton—and tremendous leaders,” DiDonato said.


DiDonato said that the three officers were not going to be sworn in at the meeting because each had to give notice to their employers.


“We will be approving them, but they can’t be working in two departments at the same time, so we’ll have to have a formal swearing-in at the November meeting to honor them,” DiDonato said.


Council then approved each officer individually, with Hiser effective October 25, Valentin effective October 29 and Brown effective November 9.


Councilman Jonathan Oliva commended Friel and the department for a “fantastic job training new members.”


“Everybody has always been cordial and incredibly helpful. You can tell that, from the most experienced right down to the new officer, that they all share the same vision of keeping our community safe and pushing everything forward,” Oliva said.


Friel, in turn, thanked Oliva and the rest of council for passing Ordinance No. 009-2021.


“What that has done has been able to enable us to be more selective in the quality of people that we are bringing in—people who will make our department what it needs to be for this community. That’s a wonderful thing, and I do appreciate that,” Friel said.


Friel explained the rationale behind the creation of the state law that allowed for the ordinance.


“There is a giant change in law enforcement, the way that we are policing, with the change in use of force policies, the way that we are able to enable de-escalation tactics. Part of that was to broaden the diversity and the usefulness of our department, bringing in people who have the tools in order to enable our department to function the way that it should,” Friel said.


DiDonato expressed satisfaction that the police department was able to reach its goal number, if only temporarily.


“In a time when states, towns all are eliminating police protection, Hammonton has put safety first, prepared and made the dollars necessary ... Police protection is changing. The most important thing is not what’s on their waist anymore—the gun is not—it’s what’s from here up—the neck, the mouth—to be able to talk to someone, the de-escalation of a situation,” DiDonato said.


Friel concurred, and said that there may be shift restructuring to allow more officers working at key times.


“With all the de-escalation, the presence of multiple officers, more than one officer responding to a call, gives the safety to the officers and those involved so that things can be timely de-escalated, that things can be allowed to calm down, things can be allowed to slow down without the rush of one officer’s on one side of town and one’s on another and there isn’t any ability for either one to help each other. That has a bit of a heightened sense of awareness for things going on. This enables us to be able to slow things down, to be able to spend more time on a call and to be able to slow things down so there doesn’t have to be a use of force,” Friel said.


DiDonato also noted the purchase of 15 police vehicles in the past 24 months.


“That’s impressive for a small town to purchase almost $1 million in iron. That makes for a better police department ... What’s more impressive is that we not only purchased almost $1 million in vehicles, but we did so without borrowing a dime,” DiDonato said.


Friel agreed, citing the benefits of the environmentally friendly vehicles.


“Going green with those vehicles has helped us economically, with the way the fuel prices spiked up. That helped us quite a bit during that crunch,” Friel said.


Later in the meeting, during the town clerk’s report, the three aforementioned retirements were up for a vote.


Councilman Thomas Gribbin thanked the officers for their years of service to the town.


“I thank them for the oath they took to protect and serve our community. I know that I speak for all of mayor and council when I thank them for that service. We appreciate the work that they do for Hammonton. For all of our men and women that wear blue, I will continue to pray for them and thank them for their service. They’re going to be missed by our department, and I hope we have the opportunity to recognize that,” Gribbin said.


The Hammonton 10U Girls Softball Team received a proclamation from town council at the October 25 meeting. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato)

In other business, council took time to recognize the Hammonton 10U Boys Baseball Team and the Hammonton 10U Girls Softball Team, both of which are the 2021 District 16 champions.


Both teams were in attendance for the meeting; Oliva introduced the baseball team.


“For those of you who don’t know, the Hammonton 10U Boys Baseball Team are 2021 District 16 champions. On top of that, they played 15 games—15 games—of extra baseball this year as they worked their way through the sectionals, and ultimately landed in the Section 4 finals, and completed with a 12-3 record. That’s pretty incredible,” Oliva said.


Oliva then called head coach Matthew Peeke and the ball players to join him, who thanked the parents for “driving all over South Jersey for me, all the way down to Cape May, which is District 16, all the way up to all throughout District 16, throughout South Jersey.”


“It was a lot of running around, every single day we played baseball. We had to take a lot of vacation time and things like that, but we came together and did it. I want to thank my assistant coach, Josh Robinson, and Brandon Watson, who filled in for me quite a bit—two great guys right there—and some of the dads. I think at every single practice I had somebody either raking the field for me or whatever,” Peeke said.


Peeke also thanked the players for their hard work, calling out each by their name and number.


“These kids showed a ton of resiliency; fighting out of the loser’s bracket, like anyone knows, is a really difficult thing to do, and these boys did it over and over again,” Peeke said.


Oliva then read a proclamation from council, which noted that, in the District 16 championship game, the team “commanded a 6-2 victory over Upper Twp./Ocean City.”


“Head coach Matt Peeke and the entire coaching staff, team member parents, families, the Hammonton Little League and the Hammonton community were integral in supporting the team to victory through its unwavering support ... winning the 2021 District 16 title has brought honor onto the town of Hammonton,” the proclamation read.


Next, Gribbin introduced the Hammonton 10U Girls Softball Team.


“As someone who has attended most of your games, both the boys’ baseball games and the girls’ softball games—I even had the privilege of announcing the girls’ District 16 championship game against Northfield—I got to see your sportsmanship. I got to see the way that you conducted yourselves, both on and off the field, which is a credit to you, is a credit to your coaches and it’s a credit to your parents,” Gribbin said.


Gribbin called head coach Sheryl DelGozzo and assistant coach Vince Domenico to join him. DelGozzo thanked the parents for their dedication, and called up each player by name and number.


“It was a lot of practicing—a lot of last-minute ‘hey, we’re going to have some batting cage time tonight’—but we did it. We started off a little backwards, and we went nothing but up from there—so I’m really proud of these girls and how hard they worked,” DelGozzo said.


Gribbin then read from a proclamation, which said that the Hammonton 10U Girls Softball Team “completed its 2021 season with a 6-1 District 16 record.”


“In the District 16 championship game, the team commanded a 14-9 victory over Northfield at Hammonton Lake Park ... The mayor and council of the town of Hammonton, county of Atlantic and the state of New Jersey do hereby recognize and express their congratulations to the Hammonton 10U Girls Softball Team,” the proclamation read.


The next meeting of town council is scheduled for November 15 at 7 p.m.