Meet the Police Chief: Chief Thomas Rinaldi Became Chief During a Global Pandemic and Says He Wants to Make a Difference

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Clifton’s current Police Chief, Thomas Rinaldi, was appointed as Clifton’s interim Police Chief in February of 2020, just 2 weeks shy of Covid-19’s declaration as the first global pandemic in a century.

When asked about that experience, Chief Rinaldi refers to it as a “trial by fire” period, but explains his “first concern was safety, we were doing weekly call-ins with the state, and after we started to understand how bad this would be, I wanted to look out for the officer’s safety.” The Clifton Police Department did this with an adjusted schedule to minimize exposure. “We created a 7-on 7-off 12-hour day schedule to give the staff more time off, if they did get sick.” Rinaldi explained. Less overlap in shifts and in cars helped to reduce the impact on the department. In Clifton only a small percentage of officers became infected, compared to some NJ cities that saw as many as 15% contract Covid.  Four months later, Rinaldi was promoted to Chief.

At the time, Chief Rinaldi faced the crisis with 26 years of experience in policing, and is now finishing his 28th year. He joined the Clifton Police department in 1995, spent the first four years as a patrol officer and one year working in the Passaic County Prosecutor’s office from 2000-2001.

From there, he continued upward through the department. In 2002 he joined the Narcotics Division and was promoted to Sergeant in 2005, where he was assigned as the commander of the Narcotics Division. In 2008 he moved to Investigations as Detective Sergeant and in 2010 was promoted to Lieutenant and served as platoon Commander. In 2014, he became Commander of the Juvenile Division and in 2016 he was promoted to Captain where he was assigned to the Administrative Services Division. In 2017 he was assigned to Captain of Detectives, overseeing Narcotics, Juvenile and Investigations before ultimately being promoted to Chief

Rinaldi is Clifton’s 12th
Police Chief
in the department’s 100+ year history. When asked if he originally aspired to be Chief he answered “I don’t think anyone starts this career thinking ‘I’m going to be Chief,’ the odds are against getting there. I became a Sergeant at the 10-year mark and then I found the drive. Now, I wake up every day telling myself that I want to make a difference.”

Originally from Union City, NJ, his father began a career as a Fireman before working 25 years as a police officer. Rinaldi’s career began on a similar path. After working in the construction trade and experiencing the cycles of working and unemployment common in that industry, he realized it wasn’t for him. Rinaldi explained, “after some soul-searching I understood I wanted to give being a Police Officer a shot,” citing his main motivation was to help people.

While he grew up in Union and Sayreville, he’s lived in Clifton over 15 years. When asked if living in town affects how he approaches the job, he said “I do a lot in Clifton, shopping, going out, I enjoy that, I see the residents and people I’ve become friends with while I’m out.” He is resolute but often quick with a smile and acknowledges he prefers work behind the scenes; “I don’t look for the spotlight.”

But Rinaldi admits the role has its challenges, “It’s tough at times keeping 170 officers happy, keeping the city manager and the council happy while serving residents – it’s a balancing act.”

Soon after becoming Chief, Rinaldi indicated that expanding the Community Policing Division was a priority and has continued work on that goal. Currently the division includes 4 officers and 1 Sergeant. The role of Community Policing is to meet with residents, build relationships and connect with the community through different businesses and cultural organizations, plus spearhead projects like National Night Out and the Junior Police Academy. Rinaldi explained the division also has a role in officer recruitment, doing outreach at job fairs and local colleges including Montclair State University.

When asked if this outreach has helped the departments hiring, Chief Rinaldi says he’s “gotten good feedback, and resumes from candidates.” But Clifton faces several hurdles with hiring. Clifton is a civil-service municipality, which means it must hire from a list of eligible candidates who have passed a state exam. Since the 2020 passing of the NJ Officer Diversity Act, all NJ state police departments are also required to ensure agencies are “comprised of law enforcement officers who reflect the diversity” of the population they serve.  Clifton has ongoing outreach to address the new mandate.

In June, the city also began to allow the use of alternate route hiring, the Department can now hire a candidate who has paid for the Police Academy themselves. But in August Rinaldi explained the process is “competitive with other towns, they’re free agents, so everyone is recruiting them.” At the time, he acknowledged, “Hiring and retention continue to be our biggest struggle, but I am optimistic there is change coming.”

Rinaldi’s optimism proved predictive; at the Sept. 20th City Council meeting an agreement with the Clifton PBA was approved to raise the starting salary to be more in line with surrounding towns. Of the new increase, Rinaldi said “We are very pleased with the salary adjustment and are hopeful that it will help officer retention.”

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