By John Burton
RED BANK – Change is inevitable, but “change is good,” Darren McConnell said. “It’s just getting use to it.”
McConnell, the borough’s newly installed police chief, was sworn in as head of the 40-member department in December at a time when the department also is in a period of transition.
“It really is a changing department, probably the most change we’ve seen in the 25 years,” he said.
It has become a younger department with four new officers hired late last year, retirements of a number of officers and the death of Chief Stephen McCarthy.
The next step to set the groundwork for the transition will be a series of promotions by placing veterans in higher positions. “The influx (of new) officers is good for the town. New blood is always good,” he said.
Change is not always easy, he acknowledged. When he was promoted to detective, he really missed being a patrol officer, which he did for about 15 years. He learned to love detective work and missed it when he was named as officer in charge of the department to step in for McCarthy when he stepped down for cancer treatment. McCarthy died in September.
“I never wanted a job where I was sitting behind a desk,” he said.
While this job may keep him at his desk for much of the time, McConnell said he gets out and rides around the town as much as he can to keep his finger on the pulse of the community.
What drew McConnell to police work? “I wanted the diversity … I wanted the action.”
The 44-year-old McConnell, who is a borough resident, started with the department 25 years ago when he was just 19. He drew inspiration, in part, from his grandfather, who was a career fireman in Hoboken.
Police work appealed to him because of its unpredictability, its changing schedule, its energy. “Every day is different, even if only by a little bit, it’s different,” he said.
Red Bank is a different kind of town when compared to its surrounding neighbors, he noted.
During the day, the 1.7-square-mile borough swells to something approximating 80,000 people with a bedroom population of about 12,000. It’s also a town, he said.
Red Bank is a community that serves as a transportation, employment, cultural and entertainment hub with a vibrant downtown, in a largely urban setting and with a diverse population. “It has a wider range of any community in Monmouth County,” he said.
At night, the borough doesn’t necessarily slow down, attracting people to its restaurants, bars and theaters.
“You can see all the issues at play over one day at work,” he said.
The borough also has changed over McConnell’s quarter century on the job.
When McConnell started, there was more crime, he said, recalling daytime drug deals in the open and more violent crime. That was a trend seen in many urban areas, but the redevelopment of the borough’s east side downtown area during the early 1990s and a renewed interest in the west side, with more owner/residents in homes, contributed to a change that invigorated the community. That and a focus on community policing resulted in a decrease in crime. “Old school police work,” coupled with advancing technology has helped curb that crime trend, he said.
Crime still exists, McConnell pointed out; but now it is more what he labeled “quality of life” offenses – thefts, disorderly conduct – as opposed to more serious ones.
The latest state crime statistics, compiled by the State Police bears that out. As overall crime continues to decline – though the borough has seen an uptick in thefts, largely attributed to smartphones and other electronic devises being reported stolen – it is still a relatively small community and a few additional reports can skew the statistics, McConnell said.
Police officers are the face of the community, the ones the public comes in contact with probably more than any other government employee, and the chief serves as the face of the department, setting goals and the tone, McConnell said.
“A big part of my job is to find out how to do things,” and get them done for the betterment of the community and the department.
That part of his job, he said, will likely never get old.