Things were different back then, people always say, and then they gripe about how things were better. Though retired Weehawken Police Captain Herbert Schwanse agrees that things were different, he sees the change as a good thing.
“The job has changed completely now that technology has come in,” he said. “The Police Department went from call boxes to call radios to computers in every car. And it’s much more integrated. There’s much more civil rights.”
Schwanse would know, since the town’s force was called to aid in the 1967 Newark civil rights riots, which went down as one of the deadliest racial disturbances in history.
When Schwanse joined the Weehawken police force in 1962 two weeks before his 25th birthday, the force had three police cars and no radio. Officers had to use switchboards and call boxes to notify headquarters. The department’s “number” wasn’t even really a number: It was UN3-7800.
“[Herbert Schwanse] is like the Energizer bunny.” – Herb Schwanse Jr.
“There are a lot of dead-end streets in Weehawken, and even back then, traffic in Hudson County was terrible thanks to the Lincoln Tunnel,” he said. “Motorcycles can handle these situations better in emergencies.”
At first, the unit used a three-wheeled Harley Servi Car used to haul safety equipment. They purchased a two-wheel Harley and four Vespa scooters three years later.
In 1997, when Schwanse finally made captain, the unit had four motorcycles.
Promotions and trying times
In July of 1967, one year after he made sergeant, the Weehawken police force was asked to aid in the Newark riots, and Schwanse was right there with them. They cordoned off Hudson County from Newark and officers were stationed on every major intersection.
“I was spit on, assaulted, and shot at,” he said. “We were afraid there were going to be roving gangs coming into the suburbs and causing problems, and we wanted to nip it in the bud before it went from bad to worse.”
Schwanse was taken off his beloved motorcycle unit and assigned to the Juvenile Bureau in 1968. While there, he caught a kid who firebombed Weehawken High School by throwing a Molotov cocktail into the stairway, which sent a fireball from street level to the third floor.
“Fortunately no one was changing classes,” Schwanse said, “Or someone could have been seriously hurt.”
Shortly thereafter, he foiled a teenage burglary ring, and “Lo and behold they offered me a position as a detective.”
Schwanse actually made a homicide arrest while in the Detective Bureau, but it was downgraded to manslaughter.
“A guy and his partner were painters who lived on 50th Street, and one of them decided to show his partner a gun he had wrapped up in a rag,” he recalled. “They were jerking around with it in the car, and one guy clicked the trigger by accident and hit his partner in the shoulder, and the bullet went through his chest, heart, and one lung. The guy got out of the car, spun around, and dropped in the street.”
After around 30 years, Schwanse made captain. The promotion was delayed so long because returning World War II veterans took all the higher positions until they began to retire, he said.
Like father like son
Schwanse’s son eventually joined the force. Watching his father in action as a kid, Herb Schwanse Jr. wanted to be just like dad. At age 3 or 4, he’d dress up in a yellow rain jacket and take his scooter that had blinking red lights on it to the front of Weehawken High School and pretend to direct traffic.
He joined his father on the force in 1986 and on the motorcycle unit a few years later.
“It was great working with my dad, but a little strange,” Herb Jr. said. “You want to call him dad, but you have to call him by his rank. I slipped up a few times.”
It was rare, he added, for the two to work the same shift, since Herb was on the clock and his father had a steady shift, but they would occasionally patrol together.
“I left the force on June 20, 1999, and I got married on the 26th,” Herb said. “My dad stayed on much longer than I did, and he’s still there. I admire that about him.”
‘I didn’t like retirement’
“He’s like the Energizer bunny,” Herb said of his father’s refusal to fully retire as he approaches his 50th year of police service. “He just keeps on going.”
The senior Schwanse did retire on April Fool’s Day of 1999, “Just in case I didn’t want to do it and I could tell people I was kidding,” he said. “I soon found I didn’t quite like retirement.”
So he helped the Crime Prevention Bureau get off the ground and worked with schools and seniors to teach safety until he became the town’s first civilian court officer shortly after 9-11.
“He’s had many firsts in his career,” Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner said. “Very rarely is he off, aside from vacations. He enjoys every minute of it and he’s still going strong. It’s a compliment to his family and this entire community.”
Though his anniversary lands on Aug. 2, Schwanse plans on another “year or so,” he said.
As for his advice to those who wish to join the police force, he says it’s a good career.
“You have to dedicate your life to working around the clock, working holidays, birthdays, and different occasions that come up sometimes,” he said, “Especially if you’re a junior officer. But it’s great work and I’ve enjoyed my journey.”
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com