Police seek to partner with community

Photo by Joe Ungaro
From left, Police Chief Mark Minichini, Sgt. Juan Lisojo and Sgt. Anthony Abate outside of Belleville Police Headquarters.

BELLEVILLE, NJ — The third annual Belleville Community Bike Ride is an opportunity to get some exercise, reconnect or meet neighbors and talk with police officers in a casual, non-stressful situation.
It is also part of a larger plan.

“The bike ride is another opportunity in which to meet our police officers and get to know them better,” Police Chief Mark Minichini said. “Members of our department will be serving as escorts throughout the event. It’s a perfect time to say `hi’ to some of the officers who work hard every day to keep our community safe and secure.”
The ride is one of several outreach programs the department participates in, including Pizza With A Cop, Story With A Cop, Coffee with a Cop, Operation Chill and Operation Recess.

“We are very community oriented here,” Minichini said. “How could you not want a partnership with the community you are serving. It helps keep crime down. People feel comfortable talking to their beat cop. It’s like a family, it works better when everyone gets along.”

For the bike ride, members of the Belleville Police Department will play host to the free 3.6-mile community bike ride on June 3, starting at 10:30 a.m..

Same-day registration for the Community Bike Ride will begin at 9 a.m. Participants are urged to preregister by logging onto BellevilleNJ.org or by using a QR code that can be found on the town’s social media, dated April 26, at facebook.com/OfficialBellevilleNJ

The ride will start and end at the Belleville School No. 7 parking lot at 20 Passaic Ave.
There will be a small obstacle course for young and new riders. Free giveaways and helmets will be provided for those who need them, while limited supplies last. Snacks and refreshments will also be available.

Another outreach program is Operation Recess, which sends BPD officers into the community’s elementary schools during recess hours with the purpose of playing games and participating in activities with students on the playground. Officers are not there as rule enforcers, but as partners and supporters of the students, Minichini said.
“We encourage our officers to stop by, shoot some hoops, talk to kids,” said Sgt. Anthony Abate, who helps run the department’s active social media presence.

“We’re very active on Instagram and Facebook,” Abate said. “We’re about to post a video of one of the officers who stopped by a school and raced the kids on a scooter.”

On the most recent Walk to School with a Cop Day, officers and detectives went to a dozen locations around town where they met students and walked to school with them while interacting and engaging in conversation. Over a two day period towards the end of May, the officers walked with students to every public school in the township.

Belleville, which has a population of about 38,000, is a diverse community with 48 % of the population identifying as Hispanic, 30 % as white, 10 % as Asian and 9 % as black, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income is $75,808, 35 percent of its residents are foreign born and 55 % speak a language other than English at home.

“Belleville is a diverse place but we stand up to the challenge,” Minichini said. “We encourage people to respect diversity and get along. We are a diverse department and the community sees that.”
The department has 99 officers, down from the usual 110 because of retirements, but 10 more are entering the police academy in June. The budget is $14 million.

“We are very accessible,” said Sgt. Juan Lisojo. “The community has a line of communication with the chief.”
Minichini was born and raised in Belleville and still lives in the township. He will be 59 this month. He started with the department in 1986, rose through the ranks; patrolman, detective, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, deputy chief and then chief in 2016. Currently, he is also the assistant township manager.

He’s a movie buff, particularly film noir and gangster movies, is married to Tabitha and they have children in what he described as a Brady Bunch family. His office is decorated with pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Humphrey Bogart and Gen. George Patton.

Among the department initiatives designed to increase interaction with residents is Park, Walk and Talk. Officers are required to spend at least 10% of their shift outside of their patrol car, interacting with people.

“Ten, 15 years ago, you would get in trouble for getting out of your car and going into a deli to talk and grab a cup of coffee,” Minichini said. “We changed that. That’s how we get to know our business owners. You used to react to crimes but we try to be proactive, to keep things from happening.”