Cover Story

New Jersey State Police Superintendent, Colonel Joseph R. Fuentes
By Daniel Del Valle, George Beck, and Joseph Uliano
NJ Blue Now recently sat down with NJ State Police Superintendent, Colonel Joseph R. (Rick) Fuentes to get his take on a number of issues currently involving law enforcement in our state and across the country. In this exclusive uncensored interview, Colonel Fuentes discusses the future of modern policing, United States relations with Cuba, his agency, body cameras, and so much more.

NJ Blue Now Magazine: When you joined the state police, did you ever think that one day you’d be leading it?

Colonel Joseph r. Fuentes: No. Absolutely not! Every step of my career I was given a chain of very, very good assignments. I spent most of my career as a detective and in intelligence. I never chased ranks, mostly because I always thought the assignment that I was in was going to be the best assignment that I was going to have.

You worked with several governors on both sides of the political aisle, which is a feat that’s not common nowadays; can you tell our readers how you manage to separate partisan politics from policing?

I always said this to local chiefs, and you guys all come from those departments. I think the political pressures and the political tensions are far greater at your departments than they are here at the State Police. There is a lot of independence that’s given to the superintendent. The superintendent works for the Attorney General–that’s my chain of command, so the attorney general acts as a great buffer. If I was to put a reason behind maybe my longevity in this job, which is across four governors and seven or eight attorney generals, it’s probably because a large part had to do with the federal consent decree… I think as long the consent decree was going fine that probably was the foundation for my staying.

Where do you see modern policing headed in the next decade? 

We are trying to draw that template now. I would have to say the intelligence driven–which is really information driven that ends up as intelligence. It’s all part of the cycle, and technology today, relates to almost everything in policing right now. We are at the forefront on technology and intelligence. There’s always been an understanding on my part that the Hudson River is not a boundary or firewall against crime. Therefore, the greater New York City metropolitan area extends way into New Jersey, Newark, and beyond Newark, or as I like to say, the greater Newark metropolitan area extends all the way across the five boroughs of New York City. It really is one high-risk homeland security issue and hometown security issue related to crime and our ability to collaborate with not only police departments in New Jersey, but New York City is extremely important as well. And I have to say that most recent Bill Bratton and Jimmy O’Neil have been one hundred percent supportive of that.

You’ve been involved in intelligence-led policing where counties come together to analyze crime stats to see what they are missing. In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge we face in terms of crime reduction and criminal apprehension? 

Okay, so you all know about the CORE STAT (corridor status) program. We realized five or six years ago, as the ROIC really began to stand out, we needed some kind of a format to bring police chiefs from cities and the smallest towns who often suffer the same issues, together to discuss crime. The area we picked out was the area where 80 percent of the crime in the state was located. We called it initially the “21 Corridor,” which spans 19 miles between Paterson and Newark that became the grounding of this initiative, now it’s spread out like a triangle. It goes to Jersey City, even down to Elizabeth in Union County. It’s always been and you guys will remember this, it’s sort of like the old detective associations on steroids, at those meetings people get together, sort of share the shoe box, the way things used to be, and you will talk about cases and try to share some tidbits. So what we did was formalized that process into CORE STAT and if you haven’t been to those meetings, you really should go because what goes on in those meetings is absolutely amazing. I’ve watched shootings get solved across the room, you know across the room in real time.

Is there a particular area where you would like to see improvement, as you go forward into the future with your agency? 

Yes, it’s going to be on the technology side. I think, in part, our training is good and our men and women are very confident, that’s because of the training and the processes that we put them through. But let me just go to an executive order that the governor signed last week. It was on the Office of Information Technology and it concerned establishing economies of technology across state government, that’s both, a way to eliminate waste and it’s also a way to energize the technology support that could been given to all departments. I think we were singled out as one of six agencies that they are looking at to energize the technology support. I think as long as we are staying on the cutting edge, because now everything is cyber. Even now talking about the opium crisis, we are talking about the dark web. Heroin is increasingly being supplanting and fatally with fentanyl and fourteen other analog compounds that we identify in our labs–it’s killing people with overdoses which remain at a troubling high rate, so we are doing that as a result of retooling our lab technology. On the cyber side, and obviously with the NJ CCIC program up in the ROIC, we are looking for cyber-attacks against government infrastructure at the local, county, and state level. If you keep your technology strong, you’re going to keep your organization moving forward, so that’s where I think the emphasis has to be, not just with the state police but in any large police agency. Because that will also define the amount of support we could give police departments that can’t afford those resources and that’s important.

Is an open relationship with Cuba a good idea considering they allow several of our fugitives of justice asylum?

So look, the relationships with countries are a matter for the President of the United States and Congress if there’s a treaty. I’ve taken a very aggressive position on this most recently. I wrote an editorial for the New York Post. This was during the waning moments of the administration of President Barack Obama. I went hard at the administration for not just Joanne Chesimard, but the other four, and these are going to be names that you may of heard of; Charlie Hill, Gerena, Cheri Laverne Dalton, remember her from Nanuet, NY and also Willy Morales–these are all individuals down there along with Chesimard, who have in some respect, either directly or indirectly been involved with police killings–whether it’s bombers or as a direct confrontation with law enforcement as in the case of Charlie Hill and Joanne Chesimard. Charlie Hill has not even been prosecuted for the murder of Trooper Robert Bloom, New Mexico State Police 1971, which was two years before Foerster was killed on the turnpike. So he’s been out there that long, high-jacked a plane within a month or two after that homicide, him and two other individuals, who flew to Cuba, where they were given political asylum.
Look, I have every reason to believe and have a very high level of confidence that the Administration of Donald Trump is going to address this issue, so you know I’m going to be front-and-center on that, but look, the New Jersey State Police is a familiar brand to the Administration of President Trump. He comes to Bedminster here and sees our Troopers constantly. He’s great with our Troopers, he understands New Jersey just like he understands New York and he also understands the situation involving the fugitives down in Cuba.

What can the President do to bring Chesimard and the other terrorists hiding in plain sight in Cuba back to the United States? 

Put those chips back on the table. I don’t know how else to express that. I guess that’s probably the best way to do it. You know we haven’t concluded those negotiations yet. The last Administration still left this an open issue.

Do you feel the U.S. fugitives should have been part of the negotiations? 

Absolutely!

In 2016, the 156th class graduated with 32% minorities. Is that a satisfying percentage for you or is there more to be done to increase those numbers? 

I won’t name specific states but I would put those numbers up against any academy in the land. Your department should reflect the persons you are serving and that’s the bottom line. We got very, very aggressive in collaboration with the Attorney General’s Office maybe four or five years ago. We basically redesigned the whole recruiting bureau. Most importantly, we put money behind it. I think that was one of the issues. If you don’t have money to go out and do it, like billboards, radio ads, meetings, and going out of state to different types of schools that have diverse student bodies, you’re going to be limited. You need to have money behind that. The last three or four attorney generals have been very, very supportive on this concept. So beginning with several classes ago, we implemented this. We are seeing the fruit of this right now and it’s been very, very positive and just recently we had a meeting with the community up in Totowa, where members of minority groups and faith-based communities went to the podium and said some very good things about the State Police, relating to the accomplishments directed toward diversity. It makes us a better organization and makes a well-grounded organization. It’s bettering our relationships with the community and it’s very, very strong here in New Jersey. And look, I’m not just laying on State Police. I think that law enforcement in general at every single level in New Jersey has been commendable on the way they have related to the community. I could tell you, when they did the 21st Century Policing, we went through each one of those pillars and looked at all those things and the satisfying thing there is this didn’t just pertain to the State Police, but across law enforcement in general as so many of those pillars were already being followed by police agencies in New Jersey.

Your agency has a strict policy with physical fitness for those seeking promotions. Do you believe local and county agencies should follow that lead and why? 

I would never tell the county and local departments what to do, but I could tell you why we do it. I think one of the distinctions is that we often patrol alone, at distances that are somewhere separate from our back up. We all have been in boxing rings. We know what happens when you hold your hands up trying to stand off against somebody for a minute. I don’t know how Chuck Webner or Muhammad Ali and Frasier did it for fourteen rounds, but you will get exhausted pretty quickly. We always maintain that you have the ability to know your limitations, physically and mentally, and that you could go beyond them, which is what we train people to understand in the academy. A lot of people enrolled at the academy, never had thrown a punch, never had fired a gun, and by the time they come out, they have an understanding on how to best defend themselves… The police officer or the trooper that comes across as physically fit is far less likely to get involved in a physical confrontation, because nobody wants to engage in the physical confrontation they don’t think they could be successful in. So again, we teach our people when you are by yourself, you are protecting your gun, because if you lose your gun, the situation changes dramatically, that’s why we maintain that level of fitness.

Body cameras, what is your take? 

I like them and I’ll tell you why: Look, we have been what I call Hollywood, since 1999, which is why we are filming our stops. Obviously in car video systems, they give you the landscape view of the motor vehicle stop… You still end up with the he said or she said about the appearance of contraband, or for the movements that require our additional actions like observing a gun. Those types of things, and that is important, it (body cameras) sort of closes the loop on that… So essentially we had a slow roll out on the body cameras that we are putting out now… We have them in three stations, and we are putting them out to four more right now. We are putting out a camera that is redesigned–we are the ones designing or redesigning the cameras with our vendor–the reason is, we need a twelve hour battery. A twelve hour battery on the camera creates a bulky camera that we have seen and can dislodge from our uniform–from the summer shirt even from the winter uniform. We are trying to get to a camera that hooks into the belt, which means it will stay there and has a wire with audio and visual that goes up the tie, so the chances of dislodging in a physical confrontation are far less.

A lot of our readers are officers, troopers, the guys at the bottom, non-administrators. What’s your message to those patrolling the streets? Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of anti-law enforcement sentiment and some officer’s feel they kind of have lost their purpose. What is your message to the road officers out there? 

Don’t let narrative influence you. Don’t let the media agenda influence you. I looked at New Jersey when all the unrest was going around the country, and we never had any problems. Why? Because of the community relationships that police across all levels of law enforcement in New Jersey had already established with the community. I think it’s our professionalism. I think it’s ours, and again this is me talking broadly about law enforcement in New Jersey, not just State Police, but to go back to the beginning of your question, the person who is wearing the uniform and out on patrol is the heart and soul of every organization–that’s the center of gravity… When people still ask me, what’s your job? I say I’m a Trooper in New Jersey. That’s the most honorable best thing that I could say in terms of what I have done with the last almost forty years of my professional life. The person that’s wearing that uniform is the bedrock, the shoulders on which we all stand on. So look, depending upon on what newspaper you read, depending upon what TV channel you look at, you are going to get different views about law enforcement, but I think the standards for us are higher than anybody else. We are put on the highest pedestal, right? And that’s where we should be. We have powers that stand beyond the President of United States with the ability under very specific circumstances and justified to be able to take a human life. That is an incredible amount of accountability and responsibility, which is why we train our people to the degree that we do. I can be proud in my organization, but I see law enforcement across the spectrum in New Jersey and the job we have all done.

What has been the biggest obstacle that you have dealt with being the head guy?

That’s actually an easy one for me, too. We are in collaboration with all police departments. That has placed a lot of responsibility on us. The information sharing, you know the intelligence. The ROIC puts out up to three thousand products a year that police departments are completely depending upon. The one thing I get concerned about is being able to fuel that mission, and every week I get together with my deputy superintendants about three hours. They provide me with an agenda and throw out some items of their own and we sit down and help each other out. That’s very important… I don’t micromanage this organization. I got a very good command staff, so decision making has come a lot faster, which is the result of that. I’m not waking up too much at night. They are, and that’s the way it should be and they are very good problem solvers. And it’s not a lieutenant colonel, keep in mind the person who runs the 24/7 watch in the ROIC, who is the point of contact if they are needed, like a lost child, overturned tractor trailer, plane crash, whatever the case may be, any of our specialized resources is either through a high ranking sergeant or a lieutenant. I always go back to what Dwight Eisenhower said, “The sergeant is the army.” …Our mission has expanded since 9/11. I worry about being able to keep up with a lot of those obligations.