ELIZABETH — The dispatcher’s voice on the radio was calling for help serving a warrant and Patrolman Jonathan Parham suddenly found himself at a crossroads.
Sitting in his squad car, he ran through the reasons he should let one of the veteran officers in the Linden Police Department handle the call. He was new to the department, unfamiliar with the town and didn’t feel like fumbling with the map to find his way. He didn’t have any experience with warrants.
For a moment, he was paralyzed by fear.
“I’m thinking in my head, ‘OK you have a choice. You can face this head on, you can deal with your fears,’” Parham said. “My fears were, ‘Oh my God, what do I do? Where do I go? What’s going to happen when I get there? I don’t know what’s happening.’ Or you can go home and run away from this and say, ‘I don’t want to do this because it is challenging, because I’m facing some fear.’
“At that point, I realized either I’m going to do this and stand up to the challenge or I’m not and I chose to. I said, ‘There is no turning back. There is nothing else I want to do in life.’”
Some 25 years ago, that young officer learned lessons about staring down fear, rising to meet challenges and turning difficult situations into learning opportunities. These served him well during his time in the Linden Police Department as he rose from patrolman to chief.
As he was sworn in as Union County undersheriff Friday, July 13, to join Amilcar Colon and Dennis Burke as the executive management team for Sheriff Peter Corvelli, Parham was again fearlessly leaping into the unknown.
By 9:30 the next morning, he was dutifully stationed at his desk and on his computer screen was a set of office policies. His first order of business in his new position was to learn them cold.
Even he had to admit that he had a lot to learn. He said he wasn’t even sure how to conduct a sheriff’s sale.
“When it comes to processes like the legal side of the sheriff’s office, I have no clue,” Parham said in a July 18 phone interview. “No clue, but that’s when I kill it. That’s when I go after it really hard. I become a student of the process so that I can learn.”
Parham, who has been trained in everything from counterterrorism to anti-gang tactics, specializes in risk management. He plans to use his expertise to comb through office policies and make changes or alterations to help mitigate the chances of lawsuits and injuries to officers and residents.
“Are you forming the right habits consistently?” Parham said. “Something as silly as checking the equipment in your car. Are we making sure the officers are consistently checking the equipment in their cars? Are we making sure they check in with the control center? Whatever those things are, we want to monitor them and make sure they are on point with that because the habits they form turn out to bite them in the end if they don’t follow them because that’s what litigators are going to look at.
“They’re going to say, ‘OK, there was an incident or an accident. Let’s look at the process. Let’s compare it to your policy. Let’s see the difference.’ Here’s what we’re going to do. We want to levy a fine.
“And people get hurt. An injured officer is more than a guy who’s off for the day. There’s medical costs and time off. It has a rippling effect when we have these incidents.”
Parham’s father was a plumber and maintenance worker. His mother had two master’s degrees and worked as an executive at Macy’s. Still, money was tight in the Parham household on Passaic Avenue.
Parham began singing in the choir and chorus and in middle school played in the band, which often had competitions or shows in places such as Florida or Canada. He said this was the only way he was able to leave Linden as a kid.
The day he decided to dedicate his life to law enforcement Parham was sitting outside his home with some friends, when a couple of Linden officers pulled up and acted rudely to his friends he said.
The incident left Parham in tears, so he went running to his father. His dad started to listen, then cut him off and said he would listen only if Parham planned to do something about the incident. He didn’t want to hear another word if he was only going to complain.
“I realized at this point, when there is that thing that bothers you so viscerally that you think someone should do something, that somebody is you,” Parham said. “Naively, I said, ‘I’m going into law enforcement to make sure no one is treated like this.’”
Parham rose from patrolman to become Linden’s first black police chief Sept. 1, 2016. Just days later, his department received national attention when officers apprehended terror suspect Ahmad Khan Rahimi following a shootout.
In 2017, Rahimi was sentenced to life in prison for detonating pressure cooker bombs in New York City and New Jersey.
Parham retired in December, but he is not relaxing on some tropical island; instead he runs a consulting business that assists with police and leadership training.
He won’t admit to being a workaholic but, with a laugh, said he is “mission-oriented.”
“I truly believe that I have so many things to do and so many things to learn that, at the end of my life, I want to feel like I have exhausted my potential, that there is nothing else I could have done,” Parham said. “So, I continue to work until I reach that point.”
The hard work has earned him the respect of many, including state Sen. Nicholas Scutari.
“Being able to witness the beginning of a new chapter in Jon’s life is all the more rewarding because I have watched him evolve from someone on my high school wrestling team to someone who now has the whole community’s back and who is truly a hero to so many,” said Scutari, who represents the 22nd Legislative District, which includes Rahway, Clark and Linden.
“Over the years, he has demonstrated an ever higher level of integrity and character, and a deeper level of commitment to the service of others. No one deserves this appointment more than Jon Parham, and I could not be prouder.”