New Hamilton Police Chief James M. Stevens has wasted no time making his mark on the division that has been his professional home for the last 34 years.
Since taking over as chief from James Collins six months ago, Stevens has set out to make inroads with the public, putting heavy emphasis on community policing as means to combat crime.
The police division already had a robust community policing platform, with programs like Safety Town and Officer Friendly introducing children to police officers in a social, non-emergency situation. Under Stevens’ guidance, Hamilton Police launched in September its own Coffee With A Cop program, borrowing from a model that has seen success nationwide.
He and his wife Patricia have have two grown children: Nicole and James. Stevens has been involved in law enforcement 34 years. He is a 2009 graduate of the FBI National Academy, a 10-week advanced leadership and executive management training at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. He has served as the township’s school safety liaison officer, the commander of the township SWAT team, a counter terrorism coordinator and the police division’s first ever public information officer. Prior to joining the Hamilton Police, Stevens worked as a medic and nurse at a hospital in North Jersey, while also volunteering as a firefighter in Hamilton.
Stevens sat down with Hamilton Post editor Rob Anthes at the Hamilton Police headquarters for a wide-ranging interview, with topics including his career, the opioid addiction epidemic and how the division responds to trends in crime. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you pursue a career in law enforcement?
Probably family history. Both my grandfather and uncle were cops in New York City. The typical immigrant story—came from Ireland, served in World War I, then later on wound up as police officers in New York, back in 1920. The other side of my family, also from Ireland, were firefighters in New York City. So, kind of a family tradition.
You mentioned to me that retirement is not far off for you. How much longer do you envision working?
I hope to be here and successfully make some nice, progressive changes with the men and women that work here. I have a vision for the division. I hope to continue the great work that the other chiefs have left this division, and I hope to build upon all their great successes. I would say I’m probably here 3-4 more years.
What is your vision for Hamilton Police?
What I’d like to do is expand upon what many of the former chiefs have done here. Our community policing unit is one of the things we’d like to expand upon, which we have. We have three community policing officers. They’re assigned to the chief’s office. They’re very involved in community-oriented projects. The Neighborhood Watch programs, the community policing programs. We’ve also introduced them into the schools in order for them to have a little bit more contact with the schoolchildren, with our [Law Enforcement Against Drugs] program, our [school resource officer] program. One of the nicest things we have here that probably most of the police departments don’t have in the state is the Safety Town we have out back here. We actually provide instruction through our LEAD program. They do the sixth grade LEAD program, they do the Officer Friendly in Kindergarten and 4th grade and the 2nd grade bicycle program. So, we’re very involved with the young population, which we like.
My community policing officers are very involved with the other part of the community. We visit our seniors. We just launched a Coffee with Cops program, that’s a national program. We had our first one on the 22nd of September at the Dunkin Donuts.
A lot of communities have turned to Coffee With A Cop as a spoke of its community policing. Why did you institute it here in Hamilton?
Community policing is the foundation of all policing. We’d like to expand upon it. It’s a proven program; it works. The nice thing with the Coffee With Cops program, it breaks down physical barriers. The public is able to come up and talk to an officer. We’re a large town. The officers ride around in patrol vehicles. They’re busy, they get detailed from one assignment to the next. It’s a little bit harder for them to get out of those vehicles and engage the public on a regular, social level, like at the Coffee With Cops. They can come in, meet an officer, talk to an officer, ask them a question. It’s not a formal process. It’s just a nice, relaxed atmosphere.
Aside from that, are there any changes you think are needed with the Hamilton Police?
No. We would love to continue the forward direction this division has taken from former chiefs. They’ve built a foundation that I’d like to continue to build upon. There are many changes out there. Technology changes; we’re always fighting to keep up with technology. But I’d like to continue the very good work former chiefs have done here.
So, you think the size of the division is OK?
Any chief would tell you they’d like to have more manpower. We understand there’s a fiscal responsibility that comes with that. We will always do more with less. That’s just the way life is today. Any chief would tell you they’d like more. Would we like more? Sure, we would. Will we continue to do all the good things we do with the number of officers we have currently? Yes, we will. And we will always improve upon what we do with what we have.
You mentioned the SRO program earlier. Many communities have increased police presence at their schools this year. Has Hamilton made any changes?
We’ve looked at what the LEAD officers do in our schools. We’re going to expand upon some of the things they do aside from the programs they currently provide in the schools. We’ve also integrated our community policing unit into a Stop program, and that’s basically a program where they’ll stop by the elementary schools, meet the principal, see how things are going and just have a presence. We really want to increase our presence and our footprint in all of our schools in Hamilton. We’re doing that between our LEAD program, our SRO program, our community policing officers. I’ve heard some positive feedback already. Our LEAD guys do teach at the elementary school level and the middle school level, and our community policing officers will be in the schools when those guys are not there, just to share some of the time.
With Safety Town, you’re reaching children before they’ve even started school. And then you have officers with them in elementary and middle school. Was that a conscious decision to expose children to police so young and so often?
It’s another way for the community to have contact with them. The Dunkin Donuts was a very nice event, and there were a lot of young children. Parents are busy in the mornings. There’s athletic events going on, other events going on. So, it was great to see a lot of young individuals had that contact. It’s expanding upon our current programs, and trying to reach out more to the community and to have that contact with them, to have that good experience with an officer. We’ve been very fortunate here that the officers do a fantastic job, the contacts are always very, very rewarding for them and for the division.
Switching to another aspect of policing, you often see the State Police’s Uniform Crime Statistics quoted. For example, so far this year in Hamilton, aggravated assault is up but violent crime overall is down. How much does the division read into those statistics, and how much weight is given to them when making policing decisions?
All the statistics we use, from either the Uniform Crime Reporting from the State Police—obviously those are then sent to the FBI for federal standards and statistics—but we also use those numbers with our CommStat. Our CommStat meetings that we hold, we discuss where crime’s occurring. We try to handle it with real-time intelligence that allows us to assess where we’re having certain issues, where to redeploy certain assets of the division to better encounter those problems and serve the public. So, we use all that data to better deploy the men and women.
It seems like it’d be easy for that data to be misunderstood. Take murders in Hamilton. Last year, there was one. This year, there have been four. That’s a 300 percent increase. What does it mean? How do you use something like that to direct where you’re deploying officers?
I’m not sure I understand the question. There’s certain crimes you can’t prevent. You try to plan. For example, if you’re having a large number of robberies in an area, based upon real-time intelligence and the detective bureau gathering information, you try to determine the best way to deploy those individuals to prevent those crimes and lower those numbers. There are certain crimes that are crimes of opportunity. You really can’t change that number.
Listen, any time there’s an increase in violent crimes, that’s a major concern to me and every man and woman who works in this division and the political leaders here. It’s a concern. You want to have a safe community. You want to be able to go out at night and do your thing without being in fear. But that takes us back to community policing. Trying to make communities feel safer and be safer by providing that community policing relationship that we have. Numbers are always a concern, and numbers also reflect change—good or bad—in what we do. And we try to reorganize and decide how we’re going to redeploy assets and hopefully bring those numbers down.
What I’m asking is, on a year-to-year basis, a number may see a large increase and followed by a large decrease. How do you determine when something’s a trend versus an anomaly?
The best thing you can do is look back at issues when a lot of the crime was driven by cocaine. Crack cocaine, regular cocaine, methamphetamines. It’s a difficult trend right now in this country. It’s not just a geographical program, with an opiate abuse issue. Obviously, people are struggling with opiate addiction. Some of that causes them to go out and commit certain crimes. Some of that is driven by certain addiction issues. We try to address that accordingly. But that’s where we’ll see some of that fluctuation of numbers. Changes in behavior are part of those changes.
It seems like policing is more complex because of those changes. You have an opioid addiction response plan now. An officer might have to revive someone with Narcan. There is more required of you.
There is. We do so much more with the men and women that work on the street. Even before I came on the job, we didn’t have the automatic defibrillators in the car. We weren’t giving out Narcan when I came on the job. Officers are now deploying Narcan, automatic defibrillators, a multitude of things now that we do because we’re required to do. People will turn police officers to look for assistance. When they call 911, we will send individuals to assist in the best way we can, and we train our men and women to have the best training possible and the best equipment possible. In my time, has policing changed? Absolutely. The men and women are doing much more than they did 10 or 15 years ago.
Aside from training, how do you prepare an officer to deal with so much?
It’s training. When there are changes and certain issues in society, it affects how we police. That gets drafted down to our training unit.
A lot of the training here with the Narcan deployment is coming from the county, with assistance with Narcan, and the local hospitals. As needs in society change, we adapt to that change. That’s what makes this a very dynamic job. It’s not a static profession, where you just come here and don’t learn anything new. What we do every year changes with society’s needs.
Several police departments in Mercer County belong to an opioid addiction response plan called CARE.
We do, too. We have the CARE program here. All the officers are trained to deploy Narcan. We also give information out through the county prosecutor’s office, the SMART program, which gives them information on how to get assistance and numbers to call for assistance or counseling. That’s also provided to individuals if we were to go to their home and deploy Narcan. We are part of the CARE program. The mayor takes a very strong stance on this.
Is there anything else that is important for people to know about you or the Hamilton Police?
We cannot do it all ourselves. We rely very heavily on the community. There’s only so many men and women here that work here, but there are so many more that live in the community, with eyes and ears to help us help others by reporting incidents, suspicious activity. That’s why this community policing, we’re trying to elevate contact with the community to let them know, ‘You may not think it’s important at the time, but that one little piece of information you give to us may solve a crime for somebody or assist somebody.’ If you don’t think it’s important, it doesn’t hurt just to call. We have an anonymous tip line they call at 581-4008. That’s an anonymous crime tip line, they don’t have to leave their name. If they have seen something or heard something, just call us and a detective will be assigned that will follow up on it. That’s this whole premise of community policing—get the whole community to help us and to partner with them to solving these issues. It’s a very difficult job that we have to do with just the men and women we have working here. It’s truly a collaborative effort between us and the community partnership. When we get that successfully working together all the time, we get great results.