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Mahwah Police Chief Leaves A Modernized, Professional Department Sensitive To Township's Needs

Retiring Mahwah Police Chief James N. Batelli
Retiring Mahwah Police Chief James N. Batelli Photo Credit: Contributed photo

Ask retiring Mahwah Police Chief James N. Batelli for highlights from more than four decades in law enforcement and his attention immediately turns to the accomplishments – large and small -- of the members of the department he’s headed since 2002.

“We are a nationally accredited agency through CALEA and that is a tribute to the officers who provide the service,” Batelli said Saturday. “Since the initial accreditation we have received four re-accreditations, which is something our officers work very hard at -- and only 5% of law enforcement agencies in the nation achieve.”

Accreditation results in greater accountability within a law enforcement agency, reduced risk and liability exposure, stronger defense against civil lawsuits, increased community advocacy and more overall confidence in the department’s ability to protect and serve the public.

Although it hasn’t been proven to directly improve police response time, reduce crime, or cut costs to taxpayers, accreditation does send a message that a department is committed to professionalism — the same as colleges and other institutions do.

Those other factors have been addressed during Batelli’s tenure as chief for the nearly 30,000 residents in the 26-square-mile northwest Bergen township.

At a time when many scrutinize where every public nickel goes, township police under his leadership have seized roughly $4 million from drug dealers, couriers and others – many of them snagged on Routes 17 and 287.

This kept township taxpayers from having to lay out for a $1.7 million renovation to police headquarters – which came in under budget and ahead of schedule -- and various technology aimed at making the public safer.

That includes a mini-squadron of drones that Batelli believes “will play an integral role in law enforcement in the years to come.”

SEE: Aerial Circuits: New Mahwah Police Drones Aim To Boost Protection, Service

It doesn’t stop there.

Two years ago, Mahwah police introduced a Patrol Services Unit -- a team of highly trained officers who, the chief said, “provide a high level of service to the community in specialized areas.”

“Law enforcement is a constantly evolving profession and probably one of the most scrutinized,” said Batelli, who takes his final walkout Feb. 28. “Our officers have risen to the challenge every step of the way to provide improved services to our community.

“We encourage our officers to be visible and take an active role in our community. And I have witnessed so many acts by our officers in this area that demonstrate their commitment.”

At the J. Fletcher Creamer, Jr. Valor Awards in October 2018

ABOVE: At the J. Fletcher Creamer, Jr. Valor Awards in October 2018 (contributed photo).

Batelli's own commitment has included fighting opiate addiction and substance abuse, particularly among teens.

Each year, the Mahwah Municipal Alliance hosts a Leadership Academy, the only one of its kind in the state, as well as one of the largest two-week junior police academies in the county.

(Batelli has been a trustee with the Mahwah Municipal Alliance the past 18 years.)

Protecting youth has played a major role in Batelli’s overall approach to public safety. Township police last year worked with elected officials and township Schools Supt. Dr. Lauren Schoen to put a resource officer in the high school, boosting security.

Last October, the Mahwah Police Department was one of two in New Jersey – and only 34 nationwide – to receive U.S. Department of Justice grants to fight drug addiction. The township got $300,000 to boost several services that Batelli helped put in place.

“Bells,” as he was once known, joined Mahwah’s finest in June 1978.

He was promoted to sergeant in 1986, then lieutenant three years later, then captain three years after that.

Seventeen years ago this month, Batelli became the 7th police chief in the township’s nearly 75-year history.

Batelli is a product of a Ph.D program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, holds an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Ramapo College and a Masters in law and criminal justice from Rutgers and has been an adjunct at Ramapo since 2016.

His expertise includes accident reconstruction.

Those who know and have worked closely with him were angered by a recent news report that homed in on entanglements that Batelli – no different than many police chiefs elsewhere -- had with elected officials who had little or no managerial experience, rather than highlighting his many achievements.

Much of the trouble, they said, was caused by police expenses that since-recalled Mayor Bill Laforet made without the advice and consent of township council members.

Batelli also raised eyebrows when he refused to enforce an ordinance limiting the use of township parks to residents after he first consulted with then-Bergen County Prosecutor Gurbir S. Grewal (now the New Jersey attorney general).

Political interference was heightened in 2017 when council members considered creating a police director position – which law enforcement experts say wastes money, hurts morale and creates problems for chiefs and their administrative staffs.

“Certainly every chief who serves a long tenure may butt heads from time to time with governing bodies,” Batelli said, “but the true measure of any chief of police is the level of service his/her agency provides to the community.”

Batelli said he’s taken the department as far as he can.

It’s time, he said, to “go sit in the seats and watch.”

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