The allocation comes amid extensive efforts to source funding for the project, plus letters of mutual support from leaders in neighboring communities. Outdated Haddonfield police facilities have operated on conditional waivers from the state Department of Corrections for 20 years.
By Matt Skoufalos | July 11, 2023
Just a few months after bonding $2.6 million to purchase a former bank in which to house its police department, the Borough of Haddonfield got a direct infusion of state aid to advance the project.
State and local officials were on hand Tuesday to celebrate a line item in the 2023 New Jersey state budget that will provide $5 million in direct municipal aid for a new Haddonfield Police Department facility.
“Our community has been searching for a way to give our police a better place to be for 20 years,” said Haddonfield Mayor Colleen Bianco Bezich.
“We don’t grapple with some of the same crime stats as our larger neighbors, but that doesn’t mean our police should go without.”
In late March, Haddonfield commissioners approved a $2.6-million bond resolution to acquire the former Bank of America branch at 1 Walnut Street. The $5-million state award announced Tuesday supplements those costs for construction of the new facility, which Bianco Bezich estimates could run anywhere from $3 to 5 million.
While she worked to secure funds for the project in the New Jersey state budget, Bianco Bezich said she also sought federal aid, appealing to the offices of U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D, NJ) and U.S. Congressman Donald Norcross (D, NJ-01), as well as to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The mayor said she was spurred on to pursue all available options by inhospitable working conditions in the current police department building, which include overwhelming environmental, accessibility, and technical concerns.
Haddonfield Police Chief Jason Cutler described the moment as “surreal.
“This is the culmination of eight years of me trying to give our officers a place to call home,” Cutler said.
“We’re one step closer to changing fundamentally how we do police work in Haddonfield.”
Housed within a converted bomb shelter in the basement of Haddonfield borough hall that officers have called “a dungeon,” the current department has been out of compliance with New Jersey Department of Corrections (NJDOC) standards for police stations for 20 years.
In 2022, NJDOC refused to grant Haddonfield another conditional operating waiver without proof that the borough was working to resolve longstanding issues in its police facilities.
According to Borough Administrator Sharon McCullough, Haddonfield previously spent $250,000 to $300,000 on patchwork fixes in the basement, but those didn’t resolve the problems.
Beyond sustaining water intrusion and mold, the current Haddonfield police offices do not comply with NJDOC standards, and are short on space to do the general business of police work.
The facility doesn’t have a sally port for safe prisoner transport; neither are its holding facilities up to code. Cutler said Tuesday that his department has processed arrests at the Haddon Heights Police Department for want of room in its own facilities.
Converting the bank building at 1 Walnut Street would create a new Haddonfield Police Department two-and-a-half times the size of the current one.
“We’re very space-limited,” Cutler said. “This will allow us to do a lot more.”
Bianco Bezich, the first female Public Safety Officer in Haddonfield — and only the second elected to the borough government in its 148-year history — said it was important to her that the new facilities account for the presence of women in their construction.
That means creating adequate dressing facilities to support all 23 sworn officers of the department and its civilian staff, as well as safe and private places for them to interview witnesses and victims of crimes.
Plans for the new department will include facilities for training and professional development to support officers responding to the needs of community members in crisis.
“The kinds of crime we deal with — domestic violence, drug overdoses, welfare checks, mental health responses — they don’t require big guns and huge numbers,” Bianco Bezich said. “They require empathy and an entirely different skill set.”
In explaining the significance of securing the funding to her young son, who knew the police department as “stinky, dirty, and slimy,” the mayor happened upon a useful metaphor for the moment: “We are not the ninja turtles.”
“We do not fight crime from a subterranean sewer location,” she said, to chuckles from the crowd.
“That is not what we do.”
After touring the Haddonfield Police Department, New Jersey Senate Assistant Minority Leader Jim Beach (D, NJ-06) commended Cutler for his leadership amid the limitations of the facility.
“To keep the morale high is an accomplishment for you, because it’s just not a very pleasant environment to work in,” Beach said.
Beach likewise praised the “vision and persistence” of Bianco Bezich in seeking any and all funding options for the project.
In her appeal, the Haddonfield mayor rallied letters of support from local leaders, elected officials, and police chiefs in the neighboring communities of Haddon Heights, Haddon Township, Barrington, and Audubon.
Budgeting state funds for direct municipal aid in building new police facilities “doesn’t happen that frequently,” Beach said.
Despite the likelihood that many police departments across the state are routinely out of compliance with DOC standards, the senator added that he is “not aware of any long-term plan” to support their renovation.
Haddon Heights Mayor Zach Houck said that although his police department isn’t in the dire physical straits of its Haddonfield neighbors, officers there contend with issues related to its out-of-date construction, particularly with respect to safe prisoner transport and accessibility.
“All of our communities have this legacy,” Houck said. The scope of the problem is likely “insurmountable for the state budget,” and would require federal funding to address, he opined.
In the meantime, Houck said small communities must continue to band together to advocate for themselves and one another.
“You have to get creative, and you have to lobby for stuff,” he said. “It’s a constant tug-of-war. This is a great win locally.”
Barrington Mayor Patti Harris said her town is going out to bid later this year to fund capital improvements expanding the footprint of its police department.
Harris stressed the importance of backing the Haddonfield initiative nonetheless.
“Why wouldn’t we want to support the next town?” Harris said.
“We all police the same general area.
“It’s not just about the police riding around and writing tickets,” she said.
“You want to see them do well,” Harris said.
“You want to see anyone have the tools they need to do their jobs.”
Harris also said that Bianco Bezich’s resourcefulness in seeking various funding sources of support for the project, from state offices through federal agencies, was illuminating to her fellow mayors.
Their police departments all may not have the same urgency of repair that Haddonfield’s does, but many of them have significant infrastructure needs, and might similarly lean on their neighbors in advocating for state aid to bring their facilities into compliance with state standards.
“If this is more common than everyone thinks, will there be more?” Harris said. “Is this the beginning?”
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