Sharing stories of battling COVID-19 and how the NJSPBA
and its members have stepped up to respond
Masked-man distinction has never been more appropriate for law enforcement officers as they lead the response to the way COVID-19 has infiltrated police departments, correctional facilities, communities, the state, the world, and everybody’s lives. The Hawthorne Local 200 members pictured on the cover of this issue wearing protective masks custom made by the girlfriend of a township employee with their badge numbers embroidered on them are not only appropriate but emblematic of the response to these unprecedented times.
Pictured from left, Sergeant Anthony Dellalo, Patrolman James Nienhouse, and Lieutenant Mark Michalski form one of the Hawthorne squads that continues to serve even though nearly a quarter of the department officers have contracted the virus. They have joined law enforcement throughout the state on the front lines, showing New Jersey residents that there’s no panic amid the pandemic.
Profound actions to protect and serve not only continue but escalate in the face of COVD-19. It’s responses like members from Fair Haven Local 184 posting daily videos of officers leading the Pledge of Allegiance, then reading a book. It’s responses like Ocean Township Local 371, Lacey Township Local 238, and Toms River Local 137 creating pizza night throughout Ocean County by donating pies and setting up drive-through, contactless pick up for residents. It’s responses like State Corrections Local 105 getting individual bottles of hand sanitizer to each of its 6,000-plus members.
“We’re trying to show that if this thing doesn’t slow down our law enforcement, we’re going to be OK,” Local 200 State Delegate Brendan Burke confirms. “The masks were absolutely a needed thing at this time. We obviously want to be able to go out there and do the best jobs we can.”
Fashion designer Danielle Amato created the accessories to make Hawthorne officers masked men. Her gesture falls in with so many lone rangers on the pandemic front lines. First and foremost, of course, would be Hudson County Corrections Officers Local 109 member Bernard Waddell Sr., Local 105 Correctional Police Officer Nelson Perdomo, Paterson Local 1 member Francesco S. Scorpo and Bedminster Township Local 366 member AlTerek Patterson, who have been lost to the virus.
A scroll through social media and conversations with those on the front lines further illuminates some of these heroic stories. Perhaps these tales will not only sustain the “we’re all in this together” intensity but momentarily inspire the powerful positive thinking to get to the other side.
Bernard Waddell never wavered in his duty, even when the pandemic hit. With 28 years on, he could have retired. His legacy was secure. In addition to his son Bernard Jr. serving with Union County Police as a Local 73 member, he trained many Hudson County Corrections officers, including Local 109 President Derrik James.
Fittingly, Governor Murphy described the 56-year-old Waddell as a “front-line hero,” during a news conference on April 2, the day after Waddell succumbed.
He was described by Local 109 members and Hudson County leaders as being a good officer and an ever better man, somebody who always had a smile and a kind word, a true gentleman and a brave officer. Waddell was known to so many in the county, including Hudson County Freeholder William O’Dea, who recognized his devotion.
“He didn’t look to retire early,” O’Dea praised. “That shows his dedication.”
Like many correctional facilities, Hudson County was hit hard with COVID-19. Local 109 Vice President Brandon Holmes was home quarantining when Waddell passed, and members wanted to get back to full strength to offer proper tribute to their lost brother. James assured that will come for the next issue.
The pandemic did not prevent law enforcement officers from doing something they do better than anything else: honoring their own. Local 105 asked brothers and sisters to muster for a processional on April 12 to salute Perdomo. Starting at the Brunswick Square Mall, hundreds of cars followed NJDOC vehicles on a 3.4-mile trek to Perdomo’s home. A bagpiper played when the processional arrived and offered a salute to the 44-year-old father of three, who worked at East Jersey State Prison and served for 19 years.
Perdomo was admitted to Raritan Bay Medical Center in Old Bridge on April 1 with high fever and weakness. He was put under heavy sedation while on a ventilator to help him breathe. A GoFundMe page has been set up for Perdomo’s family. Members can go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/ofc-nelson-perdomo to donate.
Law enforcement officers realize that the reality of the tragedy will not flatten in the near future. As this issue neared completion, two more front-line heroes lost their battles with this terrible virus.
Paterson Local 1 member Scorpo passed early on the morning of April 12. The 34-year old Scorpo joined the Paterson in July 2015 and served in both the patrol and traffic divisions.
Described as a “family man who cared very much about people and his profession,” Scorpo was married to Kristina for six years and was the father of two, Francisco Jr., 4, and Santino, six months.
Shortly thereafter, the Bedminster Township Police Department announced the passing of beloved Patrol Sergeant Patterson. The 38-year-old patrol sergeant graduated from the Somerset County Police Academy Recruit Class 35-05 in December 2005 and began his career as a patrolman on Jan. 1, 2006. He was promoted to sergeant in October 2014.
State PBA leaders did exactly what was needed to support members on the front lines:
Executive Vice President Marc Kovar, First Vice President Pete Andreyev, and others joined NJSPA President Pat to distribute $100 ShopRite gift cards to quarantined officers so they could have groceries delivered. Labor Relations Coordinator Mike Freeman sifted through the PBA database to provide information for members to deal with unanticipated employment issues that have come up as a result of time off triggered by COVID-19.
The PBA also took the lead in getting testing sites set up for first responders throughout. For information, go to njpba.adlabscovidtest.com. Setting up locations at the Hartz Mountain Complex in Secaucus, Garwood in Union County and Somerset County flooded Colligan with texts and emails like this from a member:
This is a huge help to us. We have a guy that hasn’t seen his family in almost 4 weeks in order to avoid exposure. This is a game-changer! I appreciate everything you do.
Thousands of members have been through quarantine, but that number appeared to flatten as testing ramped up. As that transpired, the PBA president let out words of praise and a rare venting of emotion that seemed to convey what all members have been going through on the front lines.
“It’s easy when you get a description of a suspect and everybody knows who they are looking for,” he began. “But we can’t see this. We can’t arrest it. We can’t get our hands around it. How the hell do you do this? But you are doing it. You’re doing it well.”
To gain perspective – and perhaps gain some distraction – Colligan urged members to take a daily scroll through social media and be inspired by the front-line response from members to lead communities through the pandemic. He confirmed that, in the aftermath, there will be a whole new generation of people who appreciate law enforcement.
And there are some words from one of the PBA president’s posts that everybody should read:
“I have been in regular contact with the governor and his staff, and the attorney general and his staff. Some directives and changes in how we handle our normal day-to-day operations have been made and, as issues arise, they have been very quick to respond to our requests and make the appropriate changes.
“This virus has exposed weaknesses not only in our state but in our country as well. The major issue affecting us is a national shortage of personal protective equipment. In the short term, there is no easy fix. Every agency in the country is trying to order the same exact items. In the long term, be sure your respective agency is not only ordering those items for the next national emergency but that they monitor that stock for expiration.
“As they say, ‘This too shall pass.’ When a crisis like this hits, our profession usually experiences profound changes. This is no different. As usual, we have responded with competence and professionalism, and we will continue until it is over. You are doing exemplary work, and once again our citizens have learned to appreciate us and the work that we do every day.”
The gloom of a Friday afternoon at the Hawthorne PD, where members were dealing with nine of their own already having tested positive, turned to bloom when Amato delivered the masks she made for all department members. A sewing prodigy since fifth grade, Amato made these masks with a special pocket so the N95 special PPE masks could fit inside.
“I had been seeing a shortage, so I did some research to find a way to use my abilities for good,” she explained. “They were all so excited when they realized they had their badge numbers, which kind of brought to light the tough times and the situation.”
What happened in Hawthorne is a microcosm of support for law enforcement throughout the state. When hearing of the depleted force, local physician Dr. John Gregg offered to test Hawthorne members. Three more positives were found, and those officers were taken out before they could further spread the virus.
Local businesses have been delivering food to the department, and surrounding Locals have been doing likewise to the members who were out with the virus.
“Moving forward, this is going to change our way of thinking toward safety and everything,” added Burke, who plans to keep his custom mask in his patrol bag after the pandemic ends to take any needed safety precaution. “We’re already a close-knit department, but this will make us even closer.”
Every pandemic day should begin like it has in Fair Haven. Since March 23 and continuing Monday through Friday every week until schools come back, Local 184 members are posting videos on Facebook of reciting the pledge and reading to students. Mike Campanella, a Fair Haven Special 2 and former State Delegate for Monmouth County Detectives Local 256, initiated the idea.
On April 10, he led the pledge in front of Viola Stricker School, where the marquee broadcasted a message everybody should see. He then read Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Pig a Pancake but before doing so offered a dedication.
“I’d like to dedicate this book to two friends of mine who are showing leadership and dedication,” Campanella recited. “Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, and his wife, Lynette Colligan, who is a dedicated, teacher.”
Many of these videos were filmed at the Fair Haven Department. Some officers like William Lagrotteria were out on the front lines, from where he read Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If any member is looking for an uplifting moment, check out Officer Sherri Lambert reading Money, Money, Honey Bunny! by Marilyn Sadler.
“We know how important it is to read to these kids, and it gives them something to look forward to every day,” Local 184 President Brooks Robinson acknowledged. “We all took that oath, and nothing is going to stop us from fulfilling that obligation. This definitely helps us keep the faith.”
Several members, including Robinson and John Waltz, have done two tours reading. Campanella also did a video telling “The Starfish Parable,” a famous tale of resiliency that teaches how even the smallest effort can make a big difference.
Perhaps that truly captures the impact PBA members on the front lines are making.
“More than half of our officers live in the community, and we think it’s important to have a familiar face out there with the residents,” Robinson added. “Departments everywhere are doing great stuff. We have to give credit to Mike. He’s the most positive person you could ever have at your side.”
State Corrections Local 105 took matters into its own hands. As hundreds of correctional police officers endured quarantine, President Bill Sullivan and Local attorney Frank Crivelli implored the DOC to do more to protect officers working the 12 state prisons and three juvenile detention centers.
“A lot of screaming and yelling and letter-writing,” described Crivelli, who was exposed and did much of this work while quarantined in his bedroom. “We were worried that the department was hoarding supplies rather than giving them to the members. And we were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to properly staff the jails.”
On April 7, Sullivan gathered his executive board and prepared supplies for members. He ordered 500 gallons of hand sanitizer, and they filled 8,000 two-ounce bottles to deliver to all facilities. All the while, Local 105 maintained the perspective that is key to getting through.
“It’s that old saying that you get paid not for what you do but for what you might have to do,” Sullivan reminded. “Our members have been going to work every day not knowing what they have to face, and they have stepped up. Hopefully, a lot of new policy is going to come out of this and we will be better prepared if something like this happens again.”
To lend an even bigger hand to members, Local 105 has also been reinforcing guidelines and safety measures like reminding officers to take off everything they wore to work before going home. Board members have been visiting facilities to give members reading material as well.
“We’re just trying to reassure them that the sky is not falling,” Sullivan added. “We already have members who are coming out of quarantine and getting back to work. They are resilient. There’s definitely been a learning curve, but we know we will be alright.”
As March 24 became the “Great American Takeout,” Toms River members helped facilitate making 300 pizzas available for residents through six local restaurants. Ocean Township Local 371 has taken the baton from Toms River and hosted pizza night on Fridays beginning in April. The Local is committed to having pizza night every Friday night until the end of the pandemic.
“This is the time the community needs us the most, so it’s important to step up in a positive way,” Local 371 State Delegate Michael Cicero declared. “We are the leaders in our communities, and we have to spread the goodwill to combat the virus.”
What’s spreading faster than COVID-19 is the community support for law enforcement and from law enforcement. It’s small gestures like the Bagel Chateau of Madison dropping off bagels and coffee for Madison Boro Local 92 and Big Barlow’s BBQ & Catering and Applebee’s sending lunch to Lacey Township Local 238 members. And it’s big gestures like Sayreville Local 98 purchasing 200 meals for seniors to pick up on April 2.
“We’re here to support the community as much as they need it for as long as they need it,” Cicero added.
The view from the front lines would not be complete without addressing members’ mental health. Dr. Gene Stefanelli, the PBA’s coordinator of clinical services, has been Facetiming with members at all hours, trying to help them deal with the anxiety of contracting or spreading the virus and the depression that can set in due to isolation.
Dr. Stef advises all members to try and get in some cardio each morning, which releases the maximum amount of endorphins to the brain and acts as a natural tranquilizer. And he prescribed action to power up positive thinking.
“Talk with your friends. Have conversations, as difficult as that is,” he recommended. “Stay connected. That’s the key.”