Gerard Dargan is the son of a police officer. He’s the husband of a police officer.
And for more than 26 years he was a police officer, for the last 18 at the Bergen County prosecutor’s office.
Now he has a new beat, and it has 80 synagogues.
Since March, Mr. Dargan has been working at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey as its community security director.
“With the rise in anti-Semitic activity here in northern New Jersey, it is imperative that we focus on the safety and security of our 125,000 Jews,” Jason Shames, the federation’s executive director, said. “This position will ensure Jewish communal safety by focusing on incident response and developing individual institution- and community-wide plans through training, risk mitigation, relationships with law enforcement, and access to other government resources.”
Mr. Dargan is not Jewish, but he knows a lot about the threats posed to synagogues.
As a sergeant in the Bergen County Prosecutor’s major crimes unit, he took part in the investigation of attacks on local synagogues in late 2011 and early 2012. He interviewed Anthony Graziano, who carried out the attacks under the guidance of Aakash Dalal. The two men each received a 35-year prison sentences for those crimes.
“It was all fueled by hate,” Mr. Dargan said, to explain the motivations for the Molotov cocktails thrown at Congregation Beth El in Rutherford and the graffiti sprayed on several other synagogues in the area. “That’s the simplest way to say it.”
Mr. Dargan’s first order of business on joining the Jewish federation was to introduce himself to the roughly 80 synagogues in the federation’s catchment area. “In the past two weeks, I’ve already visited about 20,” he said. The community’s schools are next on his list.
At the synagogues, he meets with the rabbi or the administrator. He looks over its security situation. And he offers his services in applying for federal homeland security grants.
Many area congregations have received the grants in recent years, and in his visits Mr. Dargan saw the impact the grants made. He inspected camera systems, access controls on doors, glass films on windows, and bollards in front of buildings “to stop any kind of vehicular attack,” he said. “Many of the synagogues were able to implement safe rooms and panic buttons and alarm systems.”
Not all of the synagogues he visited, however, had brought their security to this level. “Some were in desperate need of upgrading,” he said.
Some of these had already received site assessments from his former employer, the county prosecutor’s office, and were “well on the road to taking the steps necessary to secure their vulnerabilities.”
Part of that will be applying for the next round of security grants. “There’s a narrow window to turn it around, from early to mid-April,” he said.
The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey has long played a central role in helping area nonprofits apply for the grants, and this now has become part of Mr. Dargan’s responsibilities. “We offer assistance to help synagogue leaders prepare the grants,” he said.
His advice to synagogue leaders: “Make sure you take all the necessary steps to make your synagogue secure, from having a vulnerability assessment done to find out where you’re deficient in security, to applying for a grant and moving to implement the security features they’ve suggested. Security should be on the top of everybody’s mind.”
His biggest surprise from this first round of site visits: “Not everyone is as security conscious as they should be.”
Mr. Dargan is naturally security-conscious, even in his private life.
Whenever he enters a room, “I scan it and look for any person who may be up to no good.” When he dines out with his family, “I position myself where I can keep myself and my family safe if something happens, God forbid.”
“You have to be like that. It’s a scary world.”
Mr. Dargan grew up in Secaucus. His father was a deputy chief in the Hudson County prosecutor’s office. “I followed in my father’s footsteps. It was something I always wanted to do.”
He joined the Hudson County prosecutor’s office in January 1994, and stayed there for six years before joining the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. As he was leaving, he met a new hire, Maria. They married. Now they live in Hillsdale and have two school-age children. She is now a sergeant and still works at the Hudson prosecutor’s office.
In New Jersey, it’s the county prosecutor’s office that’s responsible for major crimes: homicides, sexual assaults, large scale narcotics, serious white collar crimes. Mr. Dargan spent most of his career working on homicides and special victims. “Those investigations are very rewarding,” he said. “You’re able to save the life of a child, stop the abuse, put the person responsible in jail.” But he does not want to talk about any of those old cases. Publicizing them runs the risk of retraumatizing the victims, he said, and he does not want to do that.
He’s excited about his new position.
“If anyone needs assistance from the federation or has any security or law-enforcement related issues where I can be the liaison, I’m very willing and able to help with that,” he said.