First published in The Record, May 18, 2017
In sleepy Haledon, speeders and drugs keep cops busy
At a few minutes past 7 p.m. on a recent Thursday, the tiny Burger King parking lot in the tiny suburb of Haledon became an epicenter of crime.
First, Haledon police officers pulled over a man after spotting the illegal tinted windows in his white Nissan Altima, only to discover the driver had an outstanding warrant for his arrest. Simultaneously, 30 feet away, a man who had been stopped for the broken taillight on his black Chevrolet Avalanche was found to be wanted for arrest by the police in Ridgefield Park.
This confluence of illegality caused four police officers, a lieutenant and Angelo Daniele, Haledon’s police chief, to be standing behind the Burger King, their cruiser lights flashing blue and red against the gathering sunset, as a woman in a black Nissan Maxima drove into the parking lot with a cellphone pressed to her ear, in violation of state law.
Daniele waved his thick tattooed arms in the air, and commanded the woman to stop. Officers checked the woman’s ID and discovered she was wanted for arrest in Wyckoff.
“That’s incredible to me. You see all these cops standing around. Why wouldn’t you drop the phone?” Daniele said. “You still think Haledon is a sleepy little town? Huh?”
Like a lot of small North Jersey towns, Haledon can seem sleepy. Home to 8,400 people, it encompasses 1.2 square miles of land in the shape of a lopsided star, with its fat parts bumping up against Paterson to the south and the William Paterson University campus in Wayne to the north, and two skinny tendrils stretching west down Grove Street and east to the headwaters of Molly Ann Brook.
But in a compact metropolitan area so densely packed with people and municipalities, crime has a way of ignoring municipal lines.
“I live two blocks from city hall, and I see wild turkeys, foxes, deer, crickets, bats. It couldn’t be quieter,” said Mayor Domenick Stampone. “Meanwhile, there's no denying that we’re in the heart of one of the densest places to live in America. Just because you’ve got this little political boundary, it doesn't really mean much for the daily activity of people."
Small police forces like Haledon's must adapt in creative ways. Five years ago, when he was still a sergeant, Daniele created Haledon's first quality-of-life enforcement night, in which officers volunteer their time to perform tasks they can’t always accommodate during a normal shift, things like running speed traps, tracking down people with warrants, and using minor traffic violations to sniff out clues to more serious criminal activity.
“If we only have two officers on the road at any given time, most of what we’re doing is playing defense,” Daniele said. “We’re just responding to the radio.”
The nights became a quarterly tradition, which continued after Daniele was promoted to chief in January. The latest, on a chilly Thursday evening recently, involved 23 officers working the dispatch radios, booking dejected arrestees in the cramped basement of Borough Hall, and driving the streets in police cruisers and unmarked cars.
“We make it feel like we’re omnipresent,” said Lt. George Guzman.
On this particular Thursday, the omnipresence started at 5:50 p.m., before Guzman and Daniele even left police headquarters. Walking to an unmarked vehicle, Guzman stopped and cocked his head.
“You hear that?” Guzman said. “We don’t tolerate that. People can’t come into our town and play loud music like that.”
What ensued was surely one of the shortest police chases in history. On Guzman’s order, an officer drove his police cruiser out of the parking lot, flicked his lights, and stopped a man who was blasting salsa music from his Harley-Davidson’s stereo. The rider sat impassively as the officer issued him a summons.
“How do you like that?” Daniele said. “We haven’t even left the parking lot yet!”
Immediately, the police radio cracked with voices. Daniele hit the sirens and dropped the gas pedal. He sped to Burhans Avenue, at the border with Paterson, just as Officer John Bonilla pulled over a woman in a blue Chevrolet Cobalt for turning left without signaling.
Bonilla spoke to the driver and smelled nothing. When Guzman approached on the passenger side, however, the northerly wind carried the scent of marijuana. Bonilla and Guzman searched the car, finding a wad of marijuana wrapped in aluminum foil, a pink plastic baggie with a few shards of loose pot, and one tiny joint.
The driver was handcuffed and charged with a misdemeanor for disorderly conduct.
“A grand slam here, right?” Daniele said to Bonilla. “All off a broken taillight.”
From there the chief and his deputy zigzagged across town, responding to requests for backup. A complaint of someone attempting to hitchhike led them to a man who was stumbling and mumbling down Doremus Street. The man reached into his jeans pockets for ID, and accidentally spilled 10 white paper packets of heroin on the ground, each stamped with a pink smiley face.
Seconds later he was in handcuffs.
“This is calm. The officers aren’t even warmed up yet,” Daniele said. “As the sun goes down, then we’ll start to get busy.”
Guzman and Daniele spent much of the evening backing up Detective Tim Lindberg, who first pulled over a gray Honda Civic for speeding down Burhans Avenue. He found a passenger who was not wearing a seat belt and had no ID, and a driver with no ID and a warrant for his arrest in Clifton.
Later, Lindberg stopped a silver Acura for having tinted windows, walked to the driver’s-side window, and smelled marijuana. He made two arrests.
“Nice job, Lindberg,” Daniele said. “You ever think about becoming a cop?”
At 8:51 p.m., Officer Antulio Negron stopped a gray Toyota SUV on Belmont Avenue for driving at night with no headlights. He spotted four young people inside, smelled marijuana, and called for backup.
Daniele arrived to find one young man in handcuffs, looking angry. The man had been sitting in the backseat when police stopped the vehicle, he told Detective George Kelly. The woman in the front passenger seat had tossed him a ball of pot, which he tried to conceal by swallowing it. The ball was too big, however, so he tried jamming it under the seat.
“Now he doesn’t understand why he’s being charged,” Kelly said. “I’m sorry, but thank you. You just admitted to three different crimes: Possession, attempt to hide evidence and consumption. You just made our life a lot easier.”
The evening air grew colder, and Daniele pulled a black cap down over his cleanly shaved head. He watched his officers interview the suspects and inspect the Toyota. Then he laughed. It had been a busy night, and it was not yet finished. In one night in this little town, Daniele's officers would disperse two rowdy crowds, execute four arrest warrants, impound four vehicles, issue 21 summonses and arrest 16 people.
“I love this. Love it, love it,” he said. “So what do you think? Do Haledon police play games?”