UNION, NJ – It could happen on any call, any given day, and when a police officer least expects it. A gun is fired and the call comes that there is an officer down.
Despite knowing that danger lurks on any given shift, Union’s finest continue to put their lives on the line to serve and protect township citizens. Last week they were honored for that bravery, receiving commendations and citations for valor in 2014.
On May 14 township and county officials, family and friends gathered for the 6th Annual Awards and Recognition Ceremony, which this year coincided with National Police Week.
In 2014, 127 police officers across the country were killed in the line of duty. National Police Week is a collective effort proclaimed in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy to pay tribute to those who lost their lives while protecting the lives of others.
Last year Union was lucky. They did not lose a police officer in the line of duty but there were some harrowing moments and very close calls, all of which were recognized by the township at the awards ceremony. The officers involved were awarded special citations for their bravery, which is decided by Union Police Department’s Awards Selection Committee.
Union Police Department’s Capt. Dave Tyms hosted the event that began with the Union County Police and Fire Pipe and Drum Band escorting the police officers being honored into the meeting room. Each in their dress blues and pristine white gloves, the officers being honored marched to the front of the room, heads held at attention, eyes straight ahead.
With all the pomp and circumstance befitting the occasion, the police department’s Honor Guard proceeded to present colors, Union High School senior and vocalist Javon King sang the national anthem and Police Chaplain Pastor Donald Brand from the Grace Lutheran Church provided the invocation.
Union Mayor Manuel Figueiredo kicked off the ceremony by thanking everyone for attending, paying special tribute to the township’s “brother’s and sisters in blue.”
“Each and every one of you put your lives on the line to protect and serve,” said the mayor, adding “we often take for granted the job you do, but it’s important that everyone know these police officers are mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters.”
“Without your support,” Figueiredo told the police officer’s families in attendance, “we couldn’t do what we do.”
The mayor also told the police officers receiving awards for 2014 that the entire township depended on them to keep the streets of Union safe.
“Let’s not forget as a police officer you could find yourselves in a life-threatening situation and it could be any call, any day,” he said.
Union County Freeholder Vernell Wright, a resident of the township, spoke eloquently about the awards being presented, pointing out that the willingness of those being honored to go beyond the call of duty is the reason “Union County remains a safe place to live, travel, sleep and play.”
She also reminded the township’s finest that they are “the glue that binds our community together.”
“We are in a very different place in our country with a divide between those who protect and serve. The great divide is not the norm. When we respect one another, we prosper and grow as a team,” the freeholder added.
Police Director Dan Zieser, who took over leading the police force more than five years ago, explained that currently tens of thousands of law enforcement officers from around the world converge on Washington, D.C. during this week to participate in a number of planned events, which honors those that have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“Today in the United States, some 900,000 law enforcement officers put their lives on the line for the safety and protection of others. They serve with valor and distinction – and great success,” said the police director, pointing out that federal statistics show violent and property crime rates in the United States are at historic lows, “thanks in large measure to the dedicated service of the men and women of law enforcement,” said Zieser.
In Union alone, the police director said, crime statistics have dropped 57 percent since 1996, noting that this was solely because of the hard work and dedication of the members of the township police department.
“I would be remiss if I did not also mention the township committee for providing the department with the necessary tools to serve our citizens,” Zieser said, but added that this protection comes at a price.
“Each year there are approximately 16,000 assaults on law enforcement officers, resulting in nearly 60,000 injuries. Sadly over the last decade, an average of 160 officers a year have been killed in the line of duty,” said the police director.
As a reminder of how close a tragedy like this can come to a municipality like Union, Zieser reminded those present of one of the township’s finest, Sgt. Clinton Bond, whose final call for service came in 1954 when he lost his life during an armed robbery at the Tuscan Dairy. A moment of silence followed for Bond and all fallen officers.
At this point the mayor handed out the Union Medal of Honor to Sgt. Thomas Florio and Officer Peter Simon, who recently received the prestigious 200 Club Valor Award for the same act of heroism in the face of danger.
On Dec. 14, 2014, the two officers responded to a report of an armed robbery and while searching for the suspect found a vehicle parked in a lot on Morris Avenue. They observed the suspect walking towards the vehicle in question, approached him and while attempting to detain him a physical struggle took place and the suspect pulled a knife. Both officers, though, were able to disarm, overpower and handcuff him and eventually the suspect confessed not only to the robbery that had just taken place, but also other robberies occurring in Union.
Six officers involved in three separate incidents in 2014 earned the department’s Commendation Medal.
In the first incident, which took place Feb. 12, 2014, Officers Joseph Devlin and Debra Rodriguez discovered an occupied stolen vehicle on Walker Avenue in the middle of the night. They apprehended the driver as he exited the vehicle and took possession of a defaced handgun loaded with dangerous hollow point ammunition that was lying on the seat next to the driver along with a quantity of drugs.
The suspect, it was found, had a long rap sheet that included carjacking and possession of an assault rifle.
As this next story will make clear, police officers never know what will happen when they stop a vehicle. On Jan. 16, 2014, Police Officers Chris Connors and backup officer Ryan Killiment found themselves face to face with what could have been a deadly situation.
After stopping the vehicle, Connors knocked on the window and a passenger opened the door allowing a handgun to fall to the ground. The handgun was loaded with hollow-point ammunition and a round awaited in the chamber. The two male occupants, a 20-year-old and 17-year-old juvenile, were arrested and further search of the vehicle found illegal prescription drugs.
Because of their actions, both Connors and Killimett met the criteria of the Awards and Recognition Committee to receive the Commendation medal.
Connors also was the recent recipient of the VFW Loyalty Day Award in recognition of his “relentless efforts that he put forth in removing impaired motorists from Union roadways. During 2014, Connors removed 27 impaired drivers and therefore was honored for his dedication to DWI enforcement in the community.
The final Commendation Medals for 2014 were awarded to Police Officers Dominic Nuzzo and Christian Trejo for a Jan. 10, 2014, incident where a vehicle was carjacked at gunpoint in Newark and the suspect was pursued into Union and Irvington where these two police officers took over the chase. The suspect eventually crashed and Nuzzo and Trejo apprehended the driver, recovering a silver handgun.
A considerable number of Command Citations also were handed out to Union police officers at the awards ceremony. Included were 14 officers whose actions during 2014 rose to the level of the award.
In Feb. 2014 Officers Daniel Mitchell and Radcliff Sangster, along with Lt. Robert Donnelly, responded to Union High School after there was a report of a student in possession of a handgun. A “shelter in place,” or lockdown, was put into immediate effect, the student was identified by officers and removed from the classroom. A pellet gun was discovered in the teenager’s knapsack and he was subsequently taken into custody.
After a street robbery occurred on Hillside Avenue Feb. 19, 2014, where a resident shoveling snow was beaten and robbed of a key ring and money, the help of the victim’s daughter enabled Sgt. Michael Wittevrongel to pick up the trail and apprehend the suspects.
After the victim’s daughter observed the suspects getting into a vehicle she followed the car and was able to obtain a license plate number for Wittevrongel, who was in the area and spotted the vehicle in question. He attempted to stop the suspects, but they took off and a pursuit took place until the vehicle crashed into another vehicle on Route 22 resulting in injuries to the occupants. This police officer physically removed the suspects from the vehicle and assisted them with the aid of several other officers.
Resident Michelle Rochinsky received the Civilian Commendation award for her actions in aiding the police that day after she witnessed her father being strong armed and beaten. Due to the updates Rochinsky gave to headquarters over her cell phone when she followed the suspects, Wittevrongel was able to observe and pursue suspects, which resulted in their apprehension.
Police officials said the resident “went above and beyond her civic duty when she not only followed the suspect vehicle but without regard for her own safety, proceeded to give headquarters updates via her cell phone.”
“Mrs. Rochinsky was directly responsible for bringing this case to a successful conclusion and was willing to become involved and due to her involvement the suspects were subsequently apprehended,” officials said.
In another incident that took place March 18, 2014, Officer Peter Simon and Sgt. Thomas Florio were assigned to patrol the lower end of town after an increase in the number of residential burglaries. While on patrol the two observed a suspicious vehicle in the area stopping in front of several houses. The officers stopped the vehicle and the driver had an outstanding warrant in the township for burglary.
A female passenger was arrested after trying to conceal several “folds of heroin” from the officers. The woman also admitted to Simon and Florio that they were driving around looking to commit a burglary. Both received Command Citations for their valor during this incident.
Officers Michael Loguidice and Leslie Gaschler received Command Citations for their response to a medical aid call where an 82-year-old woman had no pulse and was not breathing. The officers performed CPR, utilized an AED and were able to finally regain a pulse and the woman was taken to the hospital.
On July 17, 2014, when officers Donnelly and Marco’s Novoa-Rios stopped a car on Carnegie Place they immediately detected a strong odor of marijuana and impounded the vehicle for furthers investigation. After a search warrant was issued, further investigation found close to 200 baggies of marijuana along with a handgun in the trunk. Because of their actions both officers were awarded a Command Citation.
In another case where a resident was found to not be breathing Dec. 30, 2014, Officers David Popick and Nuno Lopes responded quickly performing CPR. They continued CPR until EMS arrived and fire department personnel. The victim’s pulse was restored, which met the criteria of the awards committee.