By Scott Nisley
When people think of police officers, they often drum up images they’ve seen in pop culture. Fictional characters like Clancy Wiggum, the bumbling, doughnut-dipping police chief on The Simpsons, or Clint Eastwood in his role as the aggressive and unpredictable Inspector Callahan in Dirty Harry–or maybe even flashes of Gary Cooper playing the honest hard-working Marshal William Kane In High Noon.
But no matter what the movies tell us about the way police serve and protect their communities, they can never really touch on the real truth behind the men and women in blue. And they rarely, if ever, capture the humanity behind the badge or the challenges those officers face every day.
Carmelo Huertas, Newark-Division Chief of the Rutgers-Newark Police Department, understands those day-to-day challenges the way he understands himself. A man with three years of military training under his belt and 25 years as a New Jersey State Trooper, Huertas has been through a lot in his life. But his journey up through the ranks was long in coming.
When he first moved to the United States from Puerto Rico as a kid, Huertas didn’t even speak a word of english. His parents had separated in a divorce and he had been sent to live with his father in Louisiana.
“My mother could not afford to keep all of us,” Huertas said. “We were very poor, so my sister and I got sent to live with my father. And so my father would have me read comic books. Not because comic books were the perfect english medium, but because they had little drawings. So that’s how I developed my english.”
Interestingly enough, the idea of joining the force was something he never thought about in those early days. It didn’t occur to him till years later. “As a child I never wanted to be a police officer,” he said. “Or be in law enforcement–never even considered it, to tell you the truth.”
Back in the early 70s when he was fresh out of high school, Huertas was working odd jobs and searching for something to give meaning to his life. It was at the age of 19, that he decided to join the United States Military–a choice that gave him direction and proved to inform the rest of his career from there on out.
“It allowed me to grow,” Huertas said. “It allowed me to experience a lot of things I normally would not have experienced. And I think it helped force some discipline into my life. I must have spent the first year of my life after high school having really no structure in wanting to go anywhere. I had no desire to go to college.”
During his time in the armed forces, Huertas was stationed in Houston Texas at Fort Sam, as a part of the 470th Military Intelligence Brigade and then later transferred to Panama. It was there that he met the woman he would later marry. The two eventually left Central America and returned to Texas following Huertas‘ three year term and settled down there.
Huertas went back to working odd jobs, but found little satisfaction in any of them. He even worked for a commercial bakery for a time and found himself coming home every evening covered in baking flower. While he was dusting himself off one night, he came to the sudden realization that he was in the wrong line of work and needed to go back to school.
So Huertas took the gamble, quit his job, and began taking classes again. Eventually he earned a Bachelor of Science Degree from the University of the State of New York, a Masters from Seton Hall, and finally a Juris Doctor degree from the Law School at Seton Hall.
His determination paid off, but the road to getting that first degree was a rough one. Even with the G.I. bill he was getting each month for his military service, he and his wife were only barely scraping by.
“I remember paying the rent and we would buy food. And it was like: ‘Ok, lets get that Hamburger Helper and make last as long as we can!’ But I’m thankful that I was exposed to that because it gave me a better understanding of what other people have to go through. It gives me a better insight. If you’ve never been exposed to that, if you’ve never seen it, you really can’t empathize.”
It’s that same sense of empathy and understanding of the human condition, that informs how Huertas does his job as chief and influences the way he leads the RUPD.
“Sometimes we have to be compassionate in our enforcement of the law and our understanding,” Huertas said. “Sometimes the best enforcement is no enforcement. If I stop you and educate you and move you along, that might be the best thing. It might be the only thing you remember.”
It was around the age of 25 that Huertas joined the New Jersey State Police as a trooper and eventually became involved in more specialized projects within the organization. During his time there he acted as an instructor for the NJSP Academy, educating potential recruits and helping them prepare for their training.
He also became a key member of the State House Complex Security Unit, a group within NJSP, specifically designated to protect the Governor, the legislature, and the employees who work at the New Jersey state capitol building.
After his time with the state police, Huertas moved on to become chief of public safety at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, before finally taking over as chief here at Rutgers-Newark.
“I’ve never looked for any accolades in my job,” Huertas said. “I just came in and did my job. I’ve always felt that if I just came in and did my job, I would be ok. It’s important to remember that policing is a service. And we should provide that in the most professional and compassionate manner that we can. If the people who work for me take that philosophy away, I would say I’ve been successful.”
The key to Huertas’ leadership lies in his ability to relate with people on their own turf and ultimately understand where their coming from. His own turbulent life serves a road map in some ways. After all he’s been in tough situations himself and even feels a certain sense of gratitude for having had those experiences to help him along. In the end he’s not the jaded, finger-snapping cop, often portrayed in the movies. In fact above all, he has a refreshingly optimistic worldview, ultimately believing that most people want to do the right thing.
“Everybody knocks about Newark being dangerous,” Huertas said. “I see some hard-working people. And there are good people out here. Just because you have one or two knuckle-heads doing something stupid, doesn’t mean everybody’s doing it. I buy into the fact that I think most people are good people.”