Guidelines force police to seek only home-grown officers

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:16

    Sparta-Most Sussex County municipalities look within their own borders when hiring new police officers. Although this approach limits the pool of qualified individuals applying for the job, police officials believe it is in the best interest of their community. Municipalities such as Sparta, Stanhope, Newton and Byram require that police officer applicants must live in their respective municipality from the day they apply, to the date they are hired. "It gives residents of a township an advantage," said Sergeant Russell Smith of the Sparta Police Department about the hiring requirements. "They (rookie officers) are already familiar with the people and layout of the town." According to Smith, the specific needs of a community are best met by people who grew up within that community. "Some of the officers we have now I taught DARE to," said Smith who's served as a Sparta police officer for the past 24 years. Officers in other departments agree with Smith's assertions and dismissed the notion that the residency requirement affects the quality of officers being hired. "We haven't had a problem with getting a list of qualified officers," said Lieutenant Raymond Rafferty of the Byram Police Department about hiring with the residency requirements. "It doesn't seem to prohibit anyone." "As chief, I like the fact that I'm accessible to the community," said Sparta Police Chief Ernest Reigstad who lives in Sparta. "My neighbors can come knocking on my door if they are having a problem. For me, I think that's a positive thing." However, despite the benefits listed by police officials, the residency requirement is lifted once the officer is hired. Rafferty added that after they are appointed, officers are free to relocate anywhere, so long as they stay within the state. The number of officers still living in the municipality they serve varies greatly, from Andover, where only two out of 12 police officers live outside the township, to Byram and Sparta where a large portion of each force commutes to work. Out of 16 officers in Byram, approximately half continue to live within the township after hiring. According to Rafferty, between 80 and 85 percent of the officers live within a "reasonable response time" to Byram. Similarly, around 50 percent of Sparta police officers maintain a residency in the township. According to Chief Reigstad, one of the main reasons why officers relocate from the municipality they serve is because of the need to separate their private and professional lives. Reigstad explained that children of police officers are directly impacted if their parents are police officers in their town. When children are young, Reigstad said, many peers think it's "cool" that their baseball or football coach is a police officer. However, as they get older, they may encounter the same officer and expect to receive preferential treatment. "Sometimes an officer with no ties can be more objective," said Reigstad. "It's nice to have a mix."