IS THAT YOUR NEXT DOOR NEIGHBOR WEARING A POLICE UNIFORM? by Donny Levit
A day in the double-life of the Maplewood Police Auxiliary
As the throng of cars and commuter trains rumble back to Maplewood at the end of any given workday, tired residents hope to catch up with their families over dinner and wind down from the daily chaos.
However, a select few of your neighbors are preparing for a different kind of evening routine. They button up their crisp uniforms, enter a squad car, and commence their second job of the day as members of the Maplewood Police Auxiliary.
Auxiliary police officers – perhaps you’ve heard other terms such as police reserves or reserve officers – are local residents trained by the police academy and who serve as pivotal support for the Maplewood Police Department. They perform all their duties strictly on a voluntary basis and do not receive pay for their service.
Oh, and look carefully at their uniforms. Unlike the black uniforms of the Maplewood Police Department, the auxiliary wear a light blue shirt and sport a yellow stripe down their pants. And their patch, of course, reads Maplewood Auxiliary Police.
Maplewood resident and Auxiliary Officer George Curtis has been volunteering in this capacity for six years. “Some people have asked why I’d do something like this and not get paid,” he says. “I guess you could say that it takes a special breed of understanding. You’re committed to the voluntary role, serving the township, and helping people.”
Curtis explains that each auxiliary officer must complete police academy training as well as months of firearms qualifications before beginning their service as an auxiliary officer. And this doesn’t include his full-time job. During the time of his academy training, he was the media director for Macy’s.
Once a volunteer officially joins the auxiliary, each member is required to patrol two nights per month and one Sunday per month as well as being on hand for special community events and emergencies. “Neighbors may see you on patrol one day and then see you mowing your lawn on the weekend,” says Curtis.
The hierarchical structure of the auxiliary is similar to the Maplewood Police Department. Auxiliary Chief Joseph Kelly began volunteering in 1972. On May 22, 2019, he will retire after nearly 47 years of service. “I don’t want to leave, but I have to leave,” he says. But at age 75, Chief Kelly will leave behind a powerful legacy.
Chief Kelly grew up down the shore in Leonardo, New Jersey. “When I was 18 years old, I joined the volunteer fire department. I got married and we had a child and moved to Maplewood,” he says. “But Maplewood didn’t have volunteer fire department opportunities. I found out there were volunteer police. I said to myself, me, police?”
A lot has changed since 1972. “When I first joined, all the paid police officers lived in town. But it’s not that way anymore. There wasn’t a lot of training when I first started,” he says. “And our police cars...the equipment and cameras that we have now, it’s hard to believe. Back then the cars looked like they had two lollipops with a cherry on top.”
Chief Kelly has provided advice to countless auxiliary officers over the years. “I tell my guys that it’s going to be hours and hours of riding around bored interrupted by moments of terror,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of friends. I’ve trained a lot of guys who have gone on to be police officers and have already retired.”
But according to Chief Kelly, the auxiliary will be left in good hands. Captain Joseph Yacenda, who has been volunteering for almost 30 years, currently serves as the acting chief of the auxiliaries. “Oh, he is good,” Chief Kelly says of Captain Yacenda.” I’ve slowed down over the years and he’s really accelerated. You couldn’t find a better guy. He’s better than I am.”
Originally from Jersey City, Captain Yacenda has been a Maplewood resident since 1986. He became interested after spotting one of his neighbors in uniform doing crossing guard detail after Sunday church. But it was an incident involving his father that really inspired him. “My father was re-roofing the garage and fell off,” he recalls. Luckily, he did not receive serious injuries. He lauded the police force’s response to the incident. “I went to headquarters and filled out an application [for the auxiliary] about a week later. The rest is history.”
Captain Yacenda has brought his career acumen as a former IT contractor to his time in the department. The administrative work is rigorous, including keeping track of the hourly reports and the weapon book, and interfacing with the MPD on upcoming details. “I created an excel spreadsheet with macros and use them to keep track of all of our patrol categories and officers,” he says.
Sergeant Alexander Wright serves as a primary liaison between the auxiliary and the Maplewood Police Department. He cites his stepfather, who retired as a chief of police in Sussex County, as an influence from childhood. “I assisted when he would run the Junior Police Academy and do events such as Special Olympics programs,” he says. “I had a lot of exposure to law enforcement.”
According to Sergeant Wright, the MPD view the auxiliary team with an “absolutely great deal of appreciation. They are a bridge into the community. Volunteers like Curtis are there every second they can be.”
When asked about the retirement of Chief Kelly, Sergeant Wright notes the longevity of his time with the auxiliary. “He’s had a huge impact on the reserves,” he says. “[Chief Kelly] has been doing this for 13 years longer than I’ve been alive. While they’ll be losing a lot of experience, I think he’s set them up to be well prepared for it.”
If there’s one example to effectively demonstrate the influence of the police auxiliary, it’s the current MPD chief of police, James (Jimmy) DeVaul. A Maplewood native, Chief DeVaul served with the police auxiliary for five years before joining the MPD in 1993. “I used my experience as an opportunity to serve my community but also to do anything that I thought would help me become a regular officer,” he says.
When he became the police chief in April 2018, Chief DeVaul quickly expressed his deep respect to the auxiliary. “I told them that I wanted them to know my history and how much I appreciate them,” he recalls. “I told them they have a special friend in my office so that way I can help them to succeed by providing them additional training and resources.”
While he recognizes the auxiliary’s vital position with the MPD, Chief DeVaul also accentuates the immense role they perform for the Maplewood community. “The community may not be all that familiar with them. They may just see officers directing traffic,” he says. “But our entire community has come to rely on them.”
The Maplewood Police Auxiliary is always looking for volunteers interested in joining the unit. If you are at least 18 years old and have a valid driver’s license, you are invited to fill out an application. You can visit the website at maplewoodpd.org/police-reserves.
Donny Levit is a writer, journalist, and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. Follow him on @donnyreports.