There is ‘social’ justice

Howell Local 228 experiences overwhelming pride when the township hits up social media in support of their officers

For Richard Robertiello, pulling up to Five Guys on this cool, January evening in Howell Township was a bit of déjà vu.

The Howell Local 228 vice president circled the packed parking lot that overflowed into the lot across the street and gazed at patrons in a line that extended out the front doors. He felt the laughs and spirited conversation fit between a steady shifting forward in line. This was the Five Guys that Robertiello knew well, but the energy was different this night. It was enthusiastic. It was buzzing. It was brimming with cheer.

It was there to support him, and in turn, the PBA, the members of Howell Local 228 and perhaps every law enforcement officer ever afflicted or mocked.

“It was overwhelming,” Robertiello emoted. “Just everybody coming up to us and telling us how much they support us. All kinds of managers from Five Guys were there, everybody was having a good time just getting to know each other.”

He checked his Howell PBA shirt, took a deep breath and walked two steps forward into the jam-packed restaurant. To his right, a 3-year-old boy sat crammed in a booth with a law enforcement officer and asked to see his patrol car. To the left, 15 Five Guys employees fervently served hordes of people at the counter.

It was Facebook likes come to life. The community that virtually showed up in droves on social media following the events of Jan. 17 was now enjoying meals served as a celebration of not getting dragged down by somebody spewing anti-police rhetoric in the middle of a restaurant.

“The whole township is overwhelmingly in support of our police department,” Robertiello raved. “You just realize the huge support you do have out there.”

Yes, the public support was unbelievable in light of such a disheartening situation. In an age of negative media attention on law enforcement, social media actually became a catalyst in the positive

relationship between the township’s PBA members and the public – a connection made even bigger after their members were publicly insulted at that same Five Guys the Friday before this fundraiser.

As Robertiello wriggled through the crowd to find a seat, he reflected on the vastly different experience in the same restaurant just a couple of days earlier, which lit up phone screens and made him the main character of a virtual narrative.

The brewing of a viral event

The law enforcement officer in Robertiello never takes a break. Although he was walking into Five Guys just after getting cleared for his dinner break on Jan. 17, he was still on the job.

“I always scan the people around me,” he shared. “And I notice the employees at the counter are already laughing before I even get in the door.”

Whatever, he thought, as he focused on the big huddle of employees. Brush it off and take two more steps forward. But that’s when he heard it:

Piggies. Better get the pork.

Robertiello turned to his partner from that night, an officer he was training, and asked if that’s what she heard from one of the restaurant employees as well. After a devastating confirmation, he knew his professionalism – despite his anger – would precede him. Robertiello decided to be the bigger person and walk out.

So when Patrol Officer James Conaty pulled up to meet Robertiello for dinner, he had to stand behind his Local VP. As soon as he found out what had transpired, he needed to ensure that the managers were dealing with the crude worker appropriately, through either a warning or a termination.

“I went in there for clarification,” Conaty relayed, with an even tone. “I got contact information for the district manager.”

With a quick call to Five Guys district manager Cortney Pechillo from the parking lot, the devastating situation resolved fairly quickly. There was a swift termination of the employee, and Five Guys issued an apology to the officers.

“It was unfortunate, the kid should’ve never done that,” Pechillo affirmed. “If it was any customer, my response would’ve been the same. But when it’s law enforcement, it’s more heavily weighted.”

And that was that. An upsetting situation made right, and the officers could be sure to enjoy a hot meal on a cold night elsewhere. But the story doesn’t end there. What they didn’t know was that an army of social media support was already brewing, with likes and comments beginning to climb to the hundreds.

How do we fix this?

I will not eat at @FiveGuys in HOWELL NJ since an employee there ridiculed a few police officers that went in there to eat.

We stand by all of our Men and Women in blue here in Howell.

A chorus of voices grew deafening as a resounding affirmation – the department deserves better than these insults – radiated off comments and tweets. The experience gained momentum after a patron witnessed the incident and hit “send” on a post to a Howell Facebook group.

Just walked into Five Guys with several members of Howell Police Department for dinner. Upon seeing the officers in uniform enter the restaurant, one of the employees behind the counter shouted “piggies” and “get out the pork.” Any establishment that doesn’t support the Howell Road Dogs can close up and relocate. The disgraced employee is fortunate to be protected by such an elite police force.”

That’s when Howell Chief Andrew Kudrick, a 26-year PBA member, caught wind, all within 10 minutes of the incident occurring. Virality waits for no one – especially when dealing with law enforcement.

“This isn’t good,” Kudrick recalled, already thinking of a solution to the viral crisis. “With the way our community is, how strong they support us, this was like an insult to everybody.”

Hundreds of likes deep for the Howell PBA that came in response to the initial incident was astounding. Comment after comment on the Facebook post relayed how much the community loves its officers as the likes continued to soar.

But Kudrick knew a statement had to be issued immediately if the local Five Guys franchise was to stay in business. The chief is no stranger to communicating on the Howell Police Department page. He regularly allows the public to gather messages directly from him.

“[Five Guys] asked, ‘How do we fix this? How do we make this better?’” Kudrick recalled. “I said, ‘We have to go public on this. I will help you out as much as I can on my end with social media, but we have to show that we’re in this together, calm the community down.’”

By the next day, Kudrick had met at the restaurant with the district manager and posted a message to Facebook saying the department accepted the apology. Five Guys offered to hold a fundraiser night the following week, with all proceeds from meals purchased going toward the NJSPBA Survivor and Welfare Fund.

Just six days after the incident, the department’s Facebook page was swimming in thousands of likes. That overwhelming social media backing manifested on Jan. 22 when public online support transformed into public real-life support. The packed parking lot and patrons in a line that extended out the front doors showed how Howell Local 228 officers went from serving the community to being served by the community. And approximately $3,500 was raised for the Survivor and Welfare Fund in the process.

“There’s so much work that has gone into this to make this where we are today,” Kudrick confirmed about the Howell’s social media presence. “This was a perfect example to show how a community, a business and the police can all come together and turn a very negative incident into something that was localized and handled very quickly. I’m proud of that.”

A catalyst for change

Great way to turn something negative into a positive! Thank you, Howell Police and Thank you, Five Guys!

So glad this has been resolved. Chief Kudrick is a class act and his department reflects on him. Thank you, Howell PD for all you do. Keep safe.

Handled professionally and with class. A credit to all Law Enforcement. From my Blue Family to yours, may God bless you and St. Michael protect you.

The chorus of voices continues to support the mocked and the insulted in overwhelming numbers of comments such as the one above and likes by the day on the Howell Facebook page. There’s no doubt that this is a community that backs its officers.

In response to the incident, PBA Executive Vice President Marc Kovar is definitive about the impact: “It’s about time.”

The drain of negative social media becomes a black hole for the overwhelming good that law enforcement officers do every day. So it’s about time that a community recognizes, celebrates and comes out in public support of upstanding actions, of officers who don’t get dragged down by haters – officers who know how to rise above the negativity to get the job done.

“You don’t hear about the millions and millions of good stories,” Kovar emphasized. “The media loves to portray us as the bad villains, and in this case, our officer acted above and beyond.”

Facebook is a catalyst, and Local 228 President James Alexander loved watching how that positive relationship evolved from Facebook comments to an unexpected turnout at Five Guys.

“Given today’s climate, we got the exact opposite [of the typical bashing],” Alexander gushed. “Almost every comment I heard was positive – about police, how trained they are, where their head is, where their hearts are.”

The transparency that comes with a managed Facebook page rips through a chain of command to allow the public to feel like it has a say. The original post criticizing Five Guys is essentially what raised $3,500 for the Survivor and Welfare Fund. Kovar hopes to see more of this treatment on social media.

Kovar doesn’t want the PBA to go straight to Facebook to air comments. But he does love being able to see how Locals are leaving lasting impressions on their communities. His advice for the next time insults are hurled can be gleaned from the way Howell members so eloquently handled this situation.

“Be the bigger person, don’t do anything stupid where you’re now going to be the villain,” Kovar warned. “Instead of getting in trouble and losing your job, everyone’s talking about what a great job you did.”

When Robertiello pulled up to Five Guys the night of the fundraiser, déjà vu turned into immense pride. The desire to do even more for his community grew as he watched social media appear in front of him.

“I’ve never had anything happen like this,” Robertiello shared. “I just wanted to help people and make a difference. Despite what’s on the news and all the negative stories out there about law enforcement these days, an overwhelming amoun