Officer Ed Vincent was in fifth grade when he knew he wanted to be a police officer.
Trooper Harris, a state police officer who was stationed at his school, was just about the coolest guy Vincent knew. The state trooper, who Vincent described as a big, strong guy who looked impressive in his uniform, had a lot in common with the fifth grader. Not only were they both wrestlers, but the trooper shared Vincent’s desire to be kind to others.
“Once he talked a little bit about [his] job and what you get to do, it made me think it’d be perfect for me,” Vincent said. “I never cared what race you were or what religion you were, if you had the coolest shoes or the uglies shoes, if you were rich or poor. I mean it from the bottom of my heart, I cared about everybody and wanted everyone to be nice to everybody.”
When Trooper Harris told Vincent that being a police officer meant helping others, Vincent knew that’s exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Not only is Vincent now an officer in the Robbinsville Police Department, but he’s helping children learn the same lessons he learned from Trooper Harris as one of the district’s three school resource officers.
For the past six years, Vincent was the district’s only school resource officer, working primarily in the high school with regular visits to the middle and elementary schools. This school year, he’s joined by two other officers — Melyssa Alonso and Det. Kevin Colgan — who will work at Sharon Elementary and Pond Middle School, respectively.
After the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the Robbinsville Board of Education added two additional resource officers in a push to increase school safety. The additions ensure there is a full-time police officer stationed in every school, and the school district and township are splitting the cost.
The officers will be responsible for just about everything that falls under the umbrella of school safety. From helping police officers run drills in the schools and monitoring who enters and leaves the buildings to community engagement and school investigations, safety will be the officers’ number one priority.
“It’s a serious role. We all take is seriously, especially with everything that’s going on,” Vincent said. “And we’re doing our best to provide safety for the kids, for the staff, faculty, and visitors.”
While each officer stressed that safety is their main focus, their role in the schools extends beyond drills and investigations. The officers hope to shed light on how police officers can help students and their community in ways that children may not have previously realized. Alonso said she’s looking forward to “showing kids that police officers aren’t just police officers, they’re humans, they have families, they like different things — like video games or sports — and you can relate to them on a lot of different levels.”
Colgan said he wants to have a positive influence on students’ lives. Middle school especially can be a trying time for students, and he hopes to foster relationships where he can help students make decisions to keep them on the right path.
Colgan is a fourth-generation police officer who boasts a 23-year career in law enforcement. For him, being a cop is simply in his blood.
“I remember being a kid and seeing my grandfather in uniform, and it was a pride thing,” he said. “I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to do the right thing and be that type of person that others can look up to.”
Growing up surrounded by officers, the 44-year-old detective understands the positive influence police can have on others. He wants students to know that they can come to their school resource officer for help or guidance about problems they have in different areas of their lives.
“Just being there, you can have a positive role in their lives, and try to take away from the stereotype that police officers aren’t human beings, that we’re out there just arresting people and issuing tickets,” he said. “We are human beings, and we’re here to have relationships with the kids. They can trust us.”
As the elementary school resource officer, Alonso understands the importance of connecting with students at a young age. In addition to keeping the children safe and helping their teachers and parents help them learn right from wrong, Alonso has the added responsibility of being a key player in students’ progression.
“It starts off with elementary school, they’ll look at you as the first cop they’ve ever encountered in their life and it’s a big deal,” she said. “You’re starting a first impression and you want to make sure everything goes smoothly for them so they have a good outlook for police officers.”
Building trust early, she says, will help students understand that the township’s officers are here to help them and keep them safe. It’s a lesson Alonso hopes they’ll carry with them as they get older.
“It’s not about arresting them, it’s not about getting them in trouble; it’s about us helping them,” Vincent said. He added that if a student comes to him about a possible drug problem, his first instinct isn’t to arrest them, but to help them.
Over the last six years, Vincent has not only formed relationships with students, but he’s seen them grow and mature overtime. “It’s neat getting to spend four years with the kids, and you can see the changes in the kids. You can see the maturity, and how they’re starting to realize the importance of school.”
Vincent no longer patrols the halls of Robbinsville High alone. He’s followed by K9 Rigo, a black Labrador who is trained in explosives detection and tracking. Just like Vincent, Rigo came to the district to help protect the schools, but he’s helping foster relationships between police and students. Even some children who were uncomfortable talking to Vincent at first can’t seem to resist saying hi to Rigo.
“The first week he was in there, I had a couple students come in that probably wouldn’t talk to me, just because of the trouble they get in or the things they’re involved with,” Vincent said.
While she may not have a K9 to help her break down barriers with students, Alonso’s education has more then prepared her for the task.
Unlike the two other school resource officers, Alonso didn’t initially pursue a career in law enforcement. After studying elementary education and psychology in college, she discovered teaching wasn’t for her. However, she realized many of the skills and passions she had could easily be used to help her become a police officer.
“I like being in the community as much as I can, I love helping people as much as I can.” she said. “I like talking to people. I’m really good at talking to people in different types of situations, so I figured law enforcement would be a good match for me.”
Alonso, who will be 25 this month, uses her psychology background to help connect with a wide array of people, especially those who are struggling.
“When you’re talking to people who are having a really bad day and almost at their worst, you see how people break down or deal with certain situations, but you kind of learn how to talk and adapt to people in different ways that other people can’t perceive because they don’t know a lot about psychology or how the different personality traits are,” she said.
Working directly with the children is something Alonso is looking forward to most about her new position.
“I love being around kids as much as I can,” she said. “They’re a lot of fun. In law enforcement, your job is pretty serious, but kids kind of bring out the best in you. They look on the bright side, and they always have fun with things.
As much as the officers are looking forward to meeting and forming relationships with the students, keeping students and teachers safe remains their top priority.
“When [parents] drop off their kids everyday, know that I’m going to be doing everything in my power to make sure they’ll go home just as safely as they arrived,” Colgan said.