JERSEY CITY, NJ - The Jersey City Council flatly rejected demands to defund the Jersey City Police Department Tuesday.
After a seven-hour marathon public hearing, the legislative body supported budget changes proposed by Mayor Steven Fulop that come in the wake of the $70 million hit the city has taken as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dozens of activists spoke out via telephone in an attempt to get the city to reduce funding to the police department, the majority of whom rejected the notion that law enforcement is a means to a safer Jersey City. After voting down the last minute amendment by Council members Rolando Lavarro and James Solomon 7-2, the city council went on to adopt the $658 million budget plan 6-2-1.
Those calling for the funding shift largely couched their argument in the needs for new approaches to public safety that brought other types of professionals such as social workers and drug counselors to help deal with the root causes of crime with money to pay for these being redirected away from the police to pay for it. Meanwhile, a smaller number showed open hostility towards the police.
Included in the arguments against public safety spending were those made by Mark Devin, who called the police department "over inflated", and Mike McQuade, who shared his opinion that the community is "over-policed." Opponents were especially critical of efforts by the Fulop Administration to increase the JCPD's ranks from an all-time low of 750 officers when he took office to just under 950 today. This number, they said, far exceeds the staffing levels of police departments in cities of similar size.
Several speakers also criticized the city awarding a $1 million contract for additional police training to help law enforcement officials better handle escalating situations, an initiative brought forward following complaints of allegedly overzealous police response and use of force.
"Police are not healers," Jennifer Tang, who has spoken at previous meetings, said in support of defunding, adding that they are not equipped to deal with the underlying social issues involved.
One caller who introduced herself as a resident of Ward D in Jersey City Heights said she had her car broken into but chose not to call the police because she did not want to put the perpetrator at risk of being criminalized. Another one, saying she was from Ward B, claimed that police did not respond to repeated calls of a potential domestic violence, because, she believes, such cases carry a "low priority."
“It’s time to rethink our approach to criminal justice,” suggested one woman, who said she has attended numerous community meetings and received promises that problems she brought forward—such as people urinating in her building's hallways—would be resolved. Noting that these issues still exist, she added that the department should have a social worker to send to some of these scenes with or without a cop. “People are not trained to deal with these things. Neighborhoods are not safe. Our system is broken.”
Not all who spoke, including Barbara Camacho, were in favor of cutting police spending. "The residents on MLK need to feel safe too," she said. "The single mothers living in buildings there should not have to come downstairs for milk and eggs and be met by non-resident drug dealers in their hallways."
Camacho also took aim at a petition several callers alluded to by saying that while it purports to represent the will of the people of Jersey City it includes mainly anonymous signers and those with zip codes far outside the city's borders, including in Texas.
"If anything, that petition which has been out for weeks best demonstrates how unpopular defunding the police is in Jersey City."
For one resident, local police are what allow her to stay in the community in which she’s spent her whole life. “I’m a handicapped senior and I live in my own home in Ward F,” she said. “I was once mugged in my own driveway and my life was saved by a passing patrol car. I walk with a cane, but still struggle to go to the corner grocery story. Police have saved me many times.”
Speaking on behalf of the 750 rank-and-file police officers he represents was Carmine Disbrow, President of the JCPOBA, who said that he supports the role social workers, teachers, and job trainers play in communities but that, "none of them are going to respond to your block when an armed criminal decides to take aim at a vulnerable resident."
He also reflected on the December attack perpetrated by two individuals that left four people, including Detective Joe Seals dead. Seals, the first to be killed that day, is credited with having saved other lives by forcing the criminals to change their plan which some have speculated included attacking a local school.
"Can you imagine the pain we'd feel had he not been there," Disbrow said, pointing to the fact that the proposed funding cuts could lead to the elimination of specialized units such as the one Seals was a part of.
Jersey City Fire Department Chief Steven McGill also spoke, saying that cuts to public safety are unwise at any time, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is exactly the wrong time to defund public safety,” he said, praising Fulop's efforts to build professional departments that have created a safer city.
"Cops and firefighters do more than just fight crime and fires," he said, adding that the fire department set up Jersey City's first COVID-19 testing site, while members of the Jersey City Police Department set up the second. “Firefighters and police worked seven days a week during that time,” he said.
Councilman Yousef J. Saleh, the newest member of the body, said he voted against the amendment partly because the proposed reallocation would not address the needs of his constituents in The Heights. As far as the issue for funding the police, he said, “I'm on the ad hoc for the police review, don't want to circumvent the process, and want to see what the community has to say.”
While many of those pushing for cuts to the police budget professed to be representing “the voice of the people,” Council members Jermaine Robinson and Daniel Rivera said they regularly hear from constituents who want more police protection, not less.
“2020 is the most challenging year of all our lives. We’re seeing an uncertain future. This budget is important. We do not want to do things out of the ordinary," Robinson said, acknowledging that crime continues with police on the streets. “People get mugged in their backyards,” he said. “I get a call every day asking for cops on every street."
Still, his vote shouldn't be seen as a lack of support for the other services activists were calling for, he said. “We do need to take care of our non-profits,” he said before asking those who want to cut police spending whether they've actually communicated with the residents they say they are on the side of.
“I’ve heard you talk a lot about the brown and black community. But have you talked to them? Have you ever walked down Ocean Avenue at night?” he asked. “We live in a crazy time and we can’t afford to get it wrong. We have to make sure the plan we have is good for the entire city. We have to look at every department, not just the police and fire departments.”
Councilman Daniel Rivera said he has made no secret of the fact that he supports the police and fire departments. “I’m passionate about them, and I’m not a fan of defunding them,” he said, before citing record numbers of crimes in places like Chicago, where some of the suggested social programs have been implemented.
Concluding the conversation was Council President Joyce Watterman who warned that "we don’t want to demonize the police."
Admitting that the city will need to expand mental health, recreation, and other anti-violence programs, Watterman, who said she has lived with racism and wants to combat it offered that local officials "will have to rethink how all the departments work, how to change the functions in all these departments."
Editor's Note: The publisher of TAPinto Jersey City also serves as a communications consultant for the JCPOBA
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