TOMS RIVER – More than four decades ago marked the beginning of two lifetime commitments for Nils “Rick” Berquist. After handing in his badge and gun at the end of the year, the 66-year-old Ocean County Undersheriff appeared more than ready to enjoy his retirement with his high school sweetheart.
“I started as a seasonal police officer with Seaside Heights in May of 1977,” shared Berquist. “That same month, I married my wife, Donna.”
Berquist’s retirement from the Sheriff’s Department comes five years after he joined the county law enforcement agency. After the short stint with Seaside Heights, Berquist served as an officer in Ocean Gate and Brick Township police departments. He moved up the ranks to retire as Brick’s police chief in 2015.
A great deal has changed in law enforcement work since 1977 when a “salty old sergeant” told Berquist the job wasn’t the same as it used to be. Meanwhile, the words take on a different meaning some 45 years later.
“The young cops coming in need a higher level of intelligence to do the job,” Berquist began. “They have to be very competent in so many different technology fields. When I started, you only had to be proficient with a pen or a typewriter.”
Before the computer age, police looked up names by sorting through volumes and volumes of files maintained on cross-referenced index cards. Law enforcement agencies kept all types of records in hardcopy.
Berquist said that the tools used by modern-day police departments now give them a means of not only looking up people but also tracking them instantaneously.
Law enforcement agencies that needed to communicate with each other either picked up the telephone or used a teletype machine. The latter could take a long time to print and was not always considered reliable.
CAD systems, short for computer-aided dispatch, did not exist when Berquist started his law enforcement career in the three municipal police departments.
“When a call came in, the dispatcher logged it in a great big ledger,” said Berquist. “The ledgers were stored, and if you wanted to go back and look something up, you had to go through pages and pages of ledgers.”
The manual system came with one advantage as far as Berquist was concerned. If the power went out, work didn’t come to a standstill. Instead, officers used their flashlights.
On his way up the ranks, Berquist served as a member of the Brick Township Police Department’s Detective Bureau in the mid-1980s. Then, computers were still not prevalent, and typing up search warrants came with its share of challenges.
“We had to use carbon paper to make three copies,” Berquist explained. “You took your time because making a mistake was really an arduous process to get the warrant fixed and get back on track.”
As a young detective, Berquist recalled the first thing he did when investigating a crime scene was to canvass the neighborhood. This meant knocking on doors to look for witnesses or further reports of suspicious activities.
Officers looking to solve crimes now have an additional tool to assist them in finding answers. The advent of cameras on front doors has become a tremendous resource for documenting evidence.
“You can’t go anywhere anymore in this world without being on camera,” asserted Berquist. “Some people would argue that it infringes on their rights, and maybe it does to some degree.”
While there’s no doubt that technology has enhanced police work, the newly retired Undersheriff suggested that it comes with a small downside.
“Young people coming on to the job don’t always have the communication skills that we had back then,” Berquist said. “So many of them would rather text and call.
“I don’t say that disparagingly, as I believe these are good, hardworking people and good cops,” continued Berquist. “But it’s a skill they didn’t pick up like we had to; we had to know how to look someone in the eye.”
Berquist submitted that only sixty percent of communication is verbal, and a great deal can be lost in the balance. What’s missing as part of the non-verbal exchange includes everything from facial expressions to body language.
The public’s perception of police work has had some impact over the last four decades. However, Berquist said he had not personally experienced the negativity, which he attributed to a “few bad apples” who made it tough for others.
“On some occasions, people in our profession have done some bad things,” shared Berquist. “There are also some good people that made mistakes. Unfortunately, this has hurt us and continues to hurt us and is not helping our ability to hire people.”
Once considered one of the best jobs across the nation, fewer applicants are signing up to take the test to become cops, according to Berquist. At a foundation of federal law enforcement officials, Berquist heard an interesting analogy made by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, who spoke on the value of service.
The Commandant recalled how people spit on soldiers returning from Vietnam. However, he pointed out that people now have a whole different appreciation for military service and said the same would return to police work.
No doubt that Berquist has seen a lot over four decades in law enforcement. The answer to what he viewed as his most rewarding experience provides insight into his personal value system.
“We helped a young boy whose mother couldn’t make it home for Christmas,” Berquist recalled. “We passed a hat at the hospital and got him toys and other gifts.”
Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy worked with Berquist when the Undersheriff was part of Brick Township’s Police Department. He highlighted some of Berquist’s accomplishments while working for the county law enforcement agency.
“He took the lead on the body camera project,” said Matronardy. “He also took the lead on some equipment projects such as the safety holster one.”
Mastronardy said Berquist had always been a consummate professional in dealing with the judges and court staff and was a fantastic liaison who will be missed.
The Sheriff has not yet announced who will replace Berquist as Undersheriff.