Last month, Robbinsville Police Chief Chris Nitti recently completed the formidable FBI National Academy. The invitation-only program has trained international law enforcement managers for more than 80 years.
“I was honored to be selected for this class,” Nitti said. “The application process takes several years, and it is truly an honor to be selected from so many applicants.
There were 230 members of Nitti’s class, representing 48 states, 45 countries, five military organizations and seven federal agencies. The academy is held four times a year.
The 10-week program at the FBI’s training facility in Quantico, Virginia, includes modules in intelligence theory, terrorism and the mind of a terrorist, law, leadership, the sciences of management, human behavior, and forensics. Communication and cooperation within the law enforcement community is also emphasized which, with the other coursework, serves to improve the administration of justice within police departments and agencies. The academy’s goal is to raise law enforcement standards, knowledge, and cooperation throughout the world. Students have two mandatory modules, plus physical fitness, and get to choose three additional modules that pertain to their interests.
“I didn’t know what to expect going in, and the coursework was challenging,” Nitti said. “I took the employment law class which was phenomenal, a course in drug society and contemporary drug strategies, and a course in forensics, which was fantastic. The two mandatory blocks in the academy included management for law enforcement leaders and contemporary issues in law enforcement.”
Nitti acknowledges the coursework was difficult, but not impossible.
“Each course was better than the first one,” he said. “You do research papers, group presentations, and presentations on your own in front of your classmates. It gets you out of your comfort zone. It was rewarding, to say the least.”
The 230 or so men and women who completed the spring 2018 course of study for the National Academy did not spend all their time in the classroom. Physical fitness was also paramount, and since 1981, that has included a grueling six-mile challenge course—nicknamed The Yellow Brick Road—through a hilly, wooded trail designed and built by the U.S. Marines.
In addition to doing a 5K run to end the challenge, participants climbed over walls, ran through creeks, jumped through simulated windows, crawled through muddy water under barbed wire, scaled rock faces with ropes, and crossed a cargo net, to name just some of the obstacles. If a student completes the challenge—and not all do—he or she receives a yellow brick to memorialize their achievement.
“Physical fitness was mandatory,” he said. “There is a fitness requirement for admission, which included being able to run a mile in under 10 minutes for men. In the first week, it’s like being back in the police academy with classroom sessions on fitness, diet and nutrition. You do a workout in the gym or on the track three to five days a week. There was an additional challenge every Wednesday, which was done as a class, and prepared you for the Week 10 Yellow Brick Road challenge.”
Nitti notes that it rained for four days before his class did the Yellow Brick Road, so the course was a muddy mess.
“I did finish the Yellow Brick Road, and I do have my yellow brick,” Nitti said. “Everybody worked at their own pace, and it was challenging. Some people developed a ‘yellow brick’ limp after the challenge, but we all had fun. I was sore afterward, but I wasn’t limping.”
‘I discovered with 230 people from around the world, that people had the same or similar problems we have… The networking gives us the opportunity to reach out when needed.’
Nitti has been with the Robbinsville Police Department for 25 years, the last two years as chief. Beginning his career at RPD as a dispatcher right after high school, Nitti attended the Trenton Police Academy in 1996 before returning to Robbinsville as a police officer. After his first four years, Nitti moved on to be a detective, a patrol sergeant, a DARE officer, and a lieutenant in the department. Before taking the helm as chief in 2016, Nitti shared the role of acting chief with two other lieutenants in the department.
A graduate of Hamilton Township schools, including Alexander Elementary and Reynolds Middle School, Nitti went to high school at Notre Dame in Lawrenceville. Nitti is happy to call the Hamilton area home with his wife Kelly and teenage sons Jordan and Braedan. Kelly works with Campfire New Jersey, a non-profit with an 80-year history, which for the last 30 years has worked with New Jersey school districts to educate and empower youth on subjects including drug prevention and bullying. Sons Jordan and Braedan are baseball aficionados.
In his two years as chief of the Robbinsville Police Department, Nitti has encouraged his officers to bring new ideas to policing, including the CARE program initiated by Sgt. Scott Kivet. CARE stands for Community Addiction Recovery Effort, and involves getting drug offenders help when they need it the most.
“What I’m most proud of now in Robbinsville is being more involved in the community, and being more engaged with the CARE program,” Nitti says. “This is a program where if we come into contact with an individual under the influence of drugs or in possession of drugs, we will bring them to the station, we place them under arrest, and then we reach out to recovery coaches and advocates to try to get them help immediately.”
Town leaders, including Nitti, signed onto the program Kivet proposed. Robbinsville was the first town in Mercer County to have the program, which has now spread to virtually every town in the county.
“We know the opioid problem is not going away, so we want to take a proactive approach to try and get individuals help as soon as possible when they are at their lowest and more inclined to accept the help,” Nitti said. “Of those offered help, 80 percent have accepted and have been successful in their recovery.”
Addressing the contemporary issue of protecting schools, Nitti proudly points to the success his department has had with placing a resource officer in every school for the academic year starting in September.
“We have great guys on our force, a great community, and we have a great working relationship with our schools. We’re proud to announce we are putting a resource office in each of our schools this year because we were able to hire two additional officers.”
Robbinsville has had a full-time resource officer in the high school for some time, so this new step toward securing all of the town’s schools has been a high priority for Nitti.
“It’s important to have an officer in the school, someone who is approachable and with the right personality because the students need to have the confidence to approach that officer. That’s how the program becomes successful,” Nitti notes.
Nitti spoke of many things he took away from the National Academy including the increased suicide rate among police officers nationwide.
“One of the speakers at the academy said we need to protect and serve those who protect and serve,” Nitti said. “I thought about that because my guys on the street see bad things. We need to provide resources to them, so they can reach out when they need to. We already implemented a chaplain program here in the Robbinsville police department and the state PBA has a program for cops to reach out to other cops.”
Law enforcement leaders attending the National Academy have the opportunity to make partnerships with other leaders from across the country and across the world, learning from each other, and giving them opportunities to exchange ideas and techniques during the course and in the future. Nitti came away from the academy with an increased understanding of the importance of networking.
“I discovered with 230 people from around the world, that people had the same or similar problems we have. I know now I can reach out to 229 other people to bounce ideas off them and they would be there to help me. The networking gives us the opportunity to reach out when needed.”
Nitti noted the professionalism of the National Academy staff and facilities, saying the coursework was aligned with University of Virginia standards.
“Classrooms were state of the art,” Nitti said before laughing a bit about the accommodations. “It’s dorm living with shared bathrooms. I had a roommate and two suitemates. The food was good with a cafeteria on campus. I don’t recommend eating at the same place every day, so we went off campus occasionally to eat. We had classes from 7:30 in the morning until 5 at night. Occasionally, a few companies or organizations would come in to make presentations and provide dinner for us.”
Nitti is in an elite group, one of just about 900 graduates the National Academy will have in 2018. From its beginnings in 1935 as a source for the standardization of law enforcement procedures across the country, the National Academy has responded to changing needs in law enforcement, always emphasizing professionalism.