By Elaine Van Develde
As his 35-year career in law enforcement comes to a close, Fair Haven Police Chief Darryl Breckenridge will tell you that, in retrospect, the hat really did fit.
Well, the top cop’s cap may have been a little big in the early 1960s when Chief Carl Jakubecy visited his Fair Haven home to offer his mother Dorothy a school crossing guard job, sat the then 4-and-a-half-year-old Darryl on his lap and had him try his hat on for size.
But, even then, he says, he knew the career was the right fit for him and growing into a hat and proud local police life of his own would be his dream-come-true.
The chief, who has announced that he will retire effective Oct. 1, sports a contented smile when he talks about it — the moment he knew he wanted to become a police officer, and knowing now that it all happened as planned and more.
Jakubecy “took his police chief’s hat off his head (that day he visited to offer my mother the job) and placed it on mine. It was that moment that my dream began of becoming a police officer in Fair Haven.”
More than half a century later, Breckenridge’s eyes light up as he leans back at his desk, sitting in his milestone-laden office, flush with photos and mementos of success. He realizes that it’s the place where it ironically all started. The police station once housed kindergarten classes for Fair Haven kids.
He was one of those kids. He walked down the street from his home on a rope with all his pint-sized classmates, toted by an official uniform-clad woman, to the Youth Center kindergarten class, upstairs, pretty much in the area where his office is now. Somehow, it seemed a lot more cavernous to kindergarten kids. Call it a child-like theory of relativity.
The classroom was big to kindergarteners, much like Breckenridge’s dream and that hat seemed back then.
But Jakubecy’s lid was like those iconic ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz that, ironically enough, Dorothy wore. A few taps later and Breckenridge was looking out from underneath his own brim and the view was one of the best of his life. No regrets. No rose-colored tinge. Only reality — sometimes harsh, oftentimes rewarding. Only gratitude.
He has nothing but real gratitude for it all — every part of fulfilling his dream, getting to his Oz, his own back yard. He is grateful for even the most difficult moments that gave him a sometimes disturbing, yet insightful focus into the work he knew he had the calling to do.
What does he see when he looks back from underneath the oversized brim of that magical chief’s hat?
He will tell you that, for one, he sees his mother, a stalwart, devoted role model who watched over many children with pride and love as they crossed the street at Knollwood School for more than 25 years.
Dorothy Breckenridge, now in her 80s, is forever remembered by longtime Fair Havenites for sounding that whistle, outstretching her arms tautly in either direction, holding up her stop-sign palms and bellowing her iconic “CROOOOOOOSSS!”
“I used to stand on the sidewalk — this little 5-year-old — and pretend I was directing traffic for her,” the chief said. “Well, I thought I really was directing traffic. I loved it.”
A mother’s advice
He will tell you that he listened to his mother. “She gave me great advice,” he said. “She told me, ‘Always speak to people. It doesn’t hurt you to stop, say hello and smile. You’ll always get something valuable from that — from caring, from taking a minute to speak to people.'”
He took that advice to heart and badge, he said, and it has always done him well in community law enforcement and life. Period. He says it’s a common sense concept that has really remained the same in police work since the days of the constable.
Regardless of the media attention negative police incidents have gotten, Breckenridge says there have always been a bad few, we just see them more now, because of advances in the internet and social media. The notion of good policing hasn’t changed, he says.
“As long as you treat people with fairness and respect, you’ll get it in return,” he said. “If you go into a situation with an open mind and treat people the way you’d want your mother, sister or any family member treated, with communication and understanding of culture, you’re doing the right thing and most often everything will be fine.”
The life in law enforcement
And that’s the advice on which Breckenridge built his career, which started in Fair Haven when Jakubecy gave a young Fair Haven Breckenridge a job as a part-time dispatcher in 1976.
He had hung onto his dream all through school. He hung on with determination and good will. And he hung out around the Fair Haven police officers in the 1970s — officers Lou DeVito, Bobby O’Neill and Ricky Towler, who all became chiefs.
“I hung out around the police station all the time,” he reminisced. “They used to take me on ride-alongs. Lou DeVito was a sergeant when I first met him. Bobby O’Neill was a lieutenant and then there was Ricky Towler.”
Towler was chief right before Breckenridge. He still lives in town. DeVito and O’Niell are deceased.
Those ride-alongs and all that hanging out at the PD prompted a 14-year-old Breckenridge to join the Middletown Police Explorers. In 1972 as a teen he also became the first president of the Fair Haven Future Firemen. In 1976, he became a full-fledged volunteer fireman in Fair Haven, and remains one. He was chief of the fire company in 1996. In fact, that’s yet another community hat he filled. It hangs on his office wall.
Then there was that 1976 dispatch job. Breckenridge left the dispatch job to go into the U.S. Army in 1977 where he served for three years in the 3rd I.D. Military Police as an undercover investigator.
In 1980, when Breckenridge returned, he joined the Fair Haven Police Department as a Special Officer Class I, part-time, while he worked full-time at Steinbach’s as a regional loss prevention manager. After ending up working for a stint in the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, it didn’t take long for Breckenridge to get on his own Yellow Brick Road right back to Fair Haven.
“I realized (what I guess I always knew) that I wanted to become a uniform cop in my hometown,” he said. “Ever since that day at 4-and- a-half, I knew that’s what I wanted.”
And he did what he wanted. He stuck with his dream of community policing. By 1985 he was being sworn in as a patrolman in Fair Haven. In 1996, he became a detective. In 2000, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. And, in 2002, he rose up to lieutenant rank. Then, in 2005, Breckenridge became chief. He will have been chief for nearly 11 years by the time of his retirement.
The greater good in small-town law enforcement
Fair Haven is a small town. To ask Breckenridge how it is a big dream realized to be on the job in such a small space where everybody knows your name is to hear that “it makes it all the more fulfilling to help people in your own community.
“I know it sounds cliche, but you can really help people and make a positive difference in when you’re a police officer, and it’s all the more special when your serving the community in which you grew up.”
He grinned as he recalled a time in the 1980s when he knew of families that were too poor to afford Christmas gifts. He took it upon himself to wrap presents — knowing who they were, not wanting them to feel embarrassed, and wanting the kids to have something to unwrap with everyone else on Christmas — and leave the surprise packages on their doorsteps.
“The parents would call (the station) and ask if we knew where they came from,” he said. “I would just smile and say, ‘Santa.'”
Then there was a time when a family was in need of help with their home. Infested with bugs and rodents, it had become uninhabitable. The parents did not have the money to make repairs and there were small children in the family. They wanted to stay in the community they loved. He rallied volunteers to do some fixing.
Within no time, volunteers and retail sponsors, such as Builders General and other companies, made donations and the home was revamped, gutted, painted, new furniture and appliances installed. “If you could have seen their faces when they walked into their ‘new’ house … what an amazing feeling it was to help this family.”
And that’s what it’s really all about for the chief.
Assumptions that small town policing is a small-time challenge are something he dismisses with pride. In fact, he doesn’t even acknowledge such notions.
It’s not all about getting cats out of trees. There have been some serious cases to be cracked in the borough. One, in particular that Breckenridge worked on as a detective was a cold case murder involving a 13-year-old boy who had shot and killed his father and buried him in a shallow grave in his back yard out of state. The boy had ended up living with family in Fair Haven when the murder was solved years later.
His office strewn with commendations and awards — among them three honorable service awards, an exceptional duty award and and certification for attending the National FBI Academy in 2008 — the accolades mean a lot to him.
His uniform, which he loves to wear, is now adorned with stripes and a lot of brass.
The right time to hang the police hat
Darryl Breckenridge is a proud man. He emulates, with dignity, the men who have served as chief before him. He hopes those officers he has seen rise through the ranks will wish to emulate him, too, in some way. He has fulfilled his dream. It is their time now. He says he knows that to be true.
Why retire now? An officer’s job of protecting and serving is never done. There’s always more to do, right?
The answer was a tough call for Breckenridge to make after answering the worst two of his career. The calls came within the past five years. He responded with the unabashed strength he had always summoned without a flinch — as a chief, an officer, a mentor, but, finally, a broken-hearted human being.
There was the call when retired Patrolman John Lehnert was found dead at 46 in 2010.
Then there was the tragic call when a young 23-year-old officer, Robert J. Henne — who the chief has described as having the young, eager love of being on the job similar to his and wearing his hat proudly, always beaming the happiest of smiles from underneath its brim — had died suddenly at his home in March.
“While on the scene of Henne, I knew I was done and it was time for me to move on,” he said.
Chief Breckenridge is known for being resilient, professional in the face of adversity. But it is in his own face that the love of his hometown and his on-the-job dedication to his dream and the dreams of those officers who will follow him peers through in a soft light in his eyes.
He has a hope. “I hope the officers and future officers continue on the path of community policing … taking care … taking care of people … taking care of kids and seniors … I hope they always speak to people.”
Chief Darryl Breckenridge’s retirement celebration will be held on Thursday, Oct. 15 at the Raven and Peach restaurant in Fair Haven.
For more information on the event and tickets, and/or to place a congratulatory message in the ad journal, please contact Detective Stephen Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org or Whitney Breckenridge at Whitney.email@example.com.