Rev. Owens on police review commission: ‘We’re not here to find dirt on police department’

Aug. 13, 2020: Rev. Ronald Owens traces his history in Metuchen back to 1900, when his great-grandfather moved to the borough from Virginia to work as caretaker of the cemetery at the First Presbyterian Church.

Rev. Owens is senior pastor at New Hope Baptist Church of Metuchen. He also has served as chaplain to the Metuchen Police Department for 17 years. It is this resume Rev. Owens cites when he talks about his unique responsibility as head of a commission tasked by Mayor Jonathan Busch to review the police department’s use of force policies.

“There’s not much that Metuchen’s police department has to reform, if anything,” Owens told me in a recent interview. “It’s just that there’s some things that could make it more user-friendly to the community.

“We’re not here to find dirt on the police department,” Owens stressed.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck sparked nationwide protests. Floyd and other deaths such as Breonna Taylor has spurred hard questions about how much force is appropriate, especially when it comes to unarmed people.

Busch announced in June that he had signed the “Mayor’s Pledge” from My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative of former President Barack Obama’s Foundation. The pledge commits signers to review use of force policies, engage the community by including a range of perspectives as part of the review, make the findings public while seeking feedback and ultimately, reform use of force policies.

Busch also named the members of the commission, to be led by Rev. Owens.

Commission members are: David Alston, retired captain with the New Jersey State Police; Alan Johnson, software engineer manager with; Hazel-Anne M. Johnson, associate teaching professor at Rutgers in the Department of Human Resource Management; Chuck Lopez, music teacher with Edison School District; Deborah Mohammed-Spigner, assistant professor in the College of Business and Public Management and School of Criminal Justice and Public Administration at Kean University; Rabbi Eric Rosin of Neve Shalom; and Bobbie Theivakumaran, managing director with Citi.

Busch and Owens have both said Metuchen police department ranks low in arrests by force compared to the rest of the state.


Rev. Ronald Owens, senior pastor of New Hope Baptist Church

According to Force Report compiled by NJ Advance Media, Metuchen police reported 47 uses of force from 2012 to 2016, a lower rate than 375 police departments (out of 468) around the state. (Use of force includes any time an officer used force during an arrest and filled out a use-of-force form).

During this time frame, the subjects of force arrests were 62.1 percent white, 17.2 percent black, 6.9 percent Hispanic and 10.3 percent Asian, according to the database.

A weapon was fired twice during the time period, with two incidents in 2013 and 2014 listed as “deadly” force. For both officers who used “deadly” force, the number of subjects injured is listed as zero. Read more here.

The goal for Metuchen police will likely focus more on enhancing its exposure to the community, Owens said. One idea would be to designate an officer to focus on public relations. The officer “would do certain police appearances … in schools, talking about safety, security, all the things that our police department feels are important to know,” Owens said.

The commission will also consider ways to provide more access to counseling for individuals under “domestic stress,” Owens said. As chaplain with the police department, Owens said he travels with officers to scenes of domestic violence or emotional distress. “I’m in the car with police officers on the way to those sites, to bring comfort,” he said. “So I’m talking as someone who carries a badge.”

The commission answers to the mayor and Borough Council. Owens said he would like the commission to make some of its findings public so the community can respond.


Metuchen to review police use of force policies

June 23, 2020: Metuchen is forming a commission to study the police department’s use of force policies as part of a broader, national push to push back against law enforcement violence and racism.

Mayor Jonathan Busch announced the formation of the commission at the board meeting Monday. The commission will be led by Rev. Ronald Owens, senior pastor of New Hope Baptist Church.

“We’re grateful that here in Metuchen our police department is one of the best in the state with respect to its record, the statistics show it as well, and certainly when you compare it locally to other departments, there’s not even a comparison,” Busch said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t still look at ourselves and take a hard look at what we do.”


Torrance Police Department motorcycle officers roll out.

As part of the effort, Busch signed the “Mayor’s Pledge” from My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, an initiative of former President Barack Obama’s Foundation. The pledge commits signers to review use of force policies, engage the community by including a range of perspectives as part of the review, make the findings public while seeking feedback and ultimately, reform use of force policies.

Other details of the commission were not available. Busch said other members of the commission, as well as its specific focus, will be disclosed over the next few weeks.

Metuchen is forming the commission as the nation takes a hard look at its law enforcement and the disproportionate violence visited by police on the black community.

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on his neck sparked nationwide protests. Floyd and other deaths such as Breonna Taylor has spurred hard questions about how much force is appropriate, especially when it comes to unarmed people.

Owens and Metuchen police Chief David Irizarry did not return requests for comment Tuesday.


Metuchen PD arrest Elizabeth man for Clinton Place burglary

Well, this is unsettling.

Metuchen Police arrested Alfred Jones, 58, of Elizabeth, for allegedly breaking into a home on Clinton Place on June 7 and taking several items, police said.

Jones allegedly entered the home through a first floor window attached to the front porch between midnight and 6 a.m. June 7, said Metuchen police Sgt. Arthur Flaherty. The residents were at home and asleep at the time, police said.

Detectives arrested Jones within three hours of the call on West Grand Ave. in Elizabeth, police said. He was allegedly in possession of all the stolen property from the residence, police said. Jones was arrested for burglary and theft and transported to Middlesex County Correction Center with bail set at $50,000, police said.

Police are continuing to investigate whether Jones could be tied to other cases in the borough and other places. Last October, we reported on a rash of at least five incidents of home break-ins or attempted break-ins. It’s not clear if anyone has been arrested in those incidents.

“Someone breaking into a home during the day, 99.9 percent of the time is not looking for a confrontation,” Metuchen police chief David Irizarry said at the time. “Usually they’ll knock a few times, wait for someone to come and if no one comes, they usually bang the door.”


Metuchen PD ramps up traffic enforcement

Dec. 29, 2015: At the Borough Council meeting earlier this month, Council President Ronald Grayzel said police issued an increased amount of moving violations recently.

The context of Grayzel’s comment was the lowering of the speed limit along all of Grove Avenue in Metuchen to 25 mph. Enforcement will be a key part of getting drivers used to the lower speed limit on Grove. Two residents said at the meeting they experimented with driving 25 mph on Grove and were tailgated by drivers behind them.

“We’ve already made clear to our police chief and his department that pedestrian safety is our number one concern, so I would expect them to have increased eyes and enforcement on Grove Avenue while this change is taking place,” Councilwoman Allison Inserro said during the meeting.

trafficstopTraffic enforcement has indeed intensified. Metuchen police issued more than 400 moving violations in October and November, said Sgt. Arthur Flaherty. That is around 100 more tickets from the August/September time period, Flaherty said.

There are a few reasons for the rise in tickets. One is there are more bodies on the street, Flaherty said. Injuries kept some officers off the beat for a while, but they have returned. Second, as Inserro said, police are focused on pedestrian safety.

“We have been aggressively enforcing pedestrian safety, which means our officers are concentrating on traffic-related details,” Flaherty said.

Along with those returning from injury, Metuchen police welcomed two new officers to the fold, which will bring the total compliment of officers to 27. Chief David Irizarry would like to get to 28 total.

On Dec. 21, Borough Attorney Denis Murphy swore in Michael Puetz and Daniel Hoover as patrolmen. Puetz has started with the department; Hoover is finishing police academy and will start his job in January.

Photo by Thomas R Machnitzki


Metuchen police arrest Edison man after garage crash

Nov. 10, 2015: Anthony Ventre, 73, of Edison, was arrested Saturday after losing control of his vehicle and crashing into a garage on Lake Avenue, Metuchen police said.

Ventre got lost and was attempting to make a u-turn when he hit the telephone pole, careened and barreled into the garage around 6:13 p.m., police said.

Metuchen Police Officer Octavio Tapia arrested Ventre for Driving While Intoxicated (D.W.I.) police said.

No one was injured in the crash, though the garage will likely have to be demolished, the resident at Lake Avenue told me Sunday. The foundation appeared to be weakened in the crash and a support beam from the ceiling of the garage was hanging loose.

Metuchen police investigate string of break-ins

Nov. 5, 2015: A woman at a residence on Robins Place was on the second floor when she heard three loud bangs downstairs. She went down to investigate and discovered the back door busted open, but no one around.

This happened on Oct. 26 around 9:20 a.m., the last of a string of burglaries or attempted break-ins the Metuchen Police Department is investigating.

There have been five incidents: three actual break-ins and two attempts, according to Metuchen Police Chief David Irizarry. No residents have been confronted in any of the incidents. The person or people committing the acts seem to be checking to see if anyone is home before attempting to access the residences, Irizarry said.

“Someone breaking into a home during the day, 99.9 percent of the time is not looking for a confrontation,” Irizarry said. “Usually they’ll knock a few times, wait for someone to come and if no one comes, they usually bang the door.”

The incidents are likely connected, Irizarry said. “Normally you don’t have multiple burglars working in your town at one time. If you have a week or two weeks with multiple burglaries or attempts, most times it’s the same person or group of people,” he said.

Here are the incidents:

  • the first occurred on Oct. 18 at a residence on Main Street in the area of St. Francis of Assisi Cathedral. The residence, in which no one was home at the time, was accessed through an unlocked rear door. It’s not clear what time the incident occurred since no one was home. Irizarry did not have updated information on what was taken from the residence other than a video game console and video games.
  • three incidents occurred on Oct. 23: the first happened around 11:23 a.m. at a residence on Spring Street. An alarm scared away the person or people trying to access the residence; the second occurred around 1:55 p.m. on Whitman Avenue, where no one was home at the time. A rear sliding glass door was pried open and jewelry was taken; the third incident occurred at 4:15 p.m. at a residence on Rector Street, where a rear sliding door was forced open. No one was home at the time. A camera was taken.
  • The final incident, referenced above, occurred on Oct. 26 at the Robins Place residence, where police believe the perpetrator was scared away once he or she discovered the residence was occupied.

Irizarry declined to discuss any leads police are following because the investigation is ongoing. He said most towns will have the occasional burglary, but it’s not an “issue” in Metuchen. “We had a few this year and also solved a great deal of them,” he said.

He asked that residents call police if they see something, or someone, that looks out of the ordinary. Police can be reached at the main number of 732-632-8500 or by dialing 9-1-1.

Borough tries for $300K grant for bike lane on Grove Ave.

Oct. 22, 2015 — Momentum is building to lower the speed limit along the length of Grove Avenue in Metuchen from 35 m.p.h. to 25 m.p.h. to enhance pedestrian safety.

But, as has been pointed out at numerous public hearings by residents and officials, pedestrian safety takes more than just lowering speed. There are other fixes needed, like providing sidewalks and flashing lights at crosswalks.

Metuchen is trying to do its part. The borough is applying for a $299,920 state Department of Transportation grant to add a roughly 8-foot-wide bike lane on the 1.05-mile section of Grove Avenue that runs through Metuchen. Council approved the application at the council meeting Monday. The estimated cost of the project is the same amount as the grant, according to Borough Administrator Jennifer Maier.

The bike lane would be on the right side of the road for vehicles traveling from Woodbridge Avenue toward Middlesex Avenue and Metuchen High School.

“I think the DOT is becoming more aware of the need for multi-modal transportation,” Maier said in an interview after the council meeting.

Currently, Grove Avenue has signs asking vehicles and bikes to share the road, though that signage does not have much impact, Maier said.

“People don’t notice the signs, you have little kids … who don’t always stay right up against the curb or they shoot across the street,” Maier said.

Grove Avenue has been the focus of much community activism because of its heavy pedestrian use. Residents came out in support of lowering the speed limit all along Grove Avenue in Metuchen at a public hearing earlier this month. The Traffic and Transportation Committee will consider the matter at its next meeting in November. The issue would then have to go before the full borough council, which could happen in December.

A petition signed by at least 198 residents requested pedestrian crossing lights at the intersection of Mason and Grove avenues. Crossing guards work the intersection during school hours, but the intersection is “dangerous” on off-school hours, according to Sharon Jelleme, of Aldrich Avenue, who spoke at the borough council meeting October 5.

“It would help children cross, runners, everyone in town get across there. It’s extremely dangerous,” Jelleme said.

There is no money current in the budget for the project, which would cost at least $25,000 not including engineering costs, Maier said at the meeting. There also are no grants applications for the project at this time. The project would have to be considered for next year, she said. Jelleme’s petition was given to borough council and will be forwarded to the Traffic and Transportation Committee for further discussion.

The borough won approval of federal grant money for four lighted crosswalks, including at Christol Street and Grove Avenue, Mayor Thomas Valhalla said at the Oct. 5 meeting.

The bike lane grant was one of several the borough submitted this month to the state Department of Transportation for various projects, including streetscape improvements on Main Street and road repairs to Norris Avenue and Mason Drive.

Metuchen police chief Rentenberg to retire

Metuchen Borough police chief Robert Rentenberg has submitted his letter of resignation to Borough Council. Rentenberg will leave after less than four years on the job.

It’s not clear why Rentenberg is leaving the job, though Metuchen Mayor Thomas Valhalla said the police chief is retiring.

Rentenberg was sworn in to head the department in April 2011, replacing 12-year chief James Keane.

Borough Council is searching for a replacement and has been accepting resumes, including from among existing police officers, Valhalla said.

Photo sourced from Stenotech Career Institute.