JERSEY CITY, NJ - Seeking to free funding for social services, Ward E Councilman James Solomon said the council must adjust its municipal budget.

“Jersey City’s future as a just, multi-racial and multi-cultural city depends on transforming our budget,” he said in an email communication to his constituents this week. “The current budget is unacceptable. It spends the overwhelming majority of discretionary funds on public safety. It provides proverbial pennies for core social services and core city functions from city planning to mental health services to community led anti-violence efforts. It must change.”

Solomon’s statements come on the heals of a national movement to defund police departments in order to realign government funding so that more money goes to social programs rather than enforcement.

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This also comes during a week when the Hudson County Board of Freeholders voted to declare racism a health emergency and would help redirect county funds towards social services and away from law enforcement.

Many activists have been using Camden as an example of a city that defunded its police department but failed to note that this was done as a result of legal action against the department. Camden later created a Camden County police department which provided public safety for the city, and also increased its level of surveillance throughout the city.

“We do need a strong police department,” Solomon said. “And just as much, we need a strong health and human services department to respond to pandemics; a recreation department that lifts up our young people; and community-led anti-violence initiatives that interrupt conflicts before they spiral out of control. The current budget gives us much of the former, and painfully little of the later.”

Solomon said salaries for the Jersey City Police Department accounts for 43 percent of all salaries paid out by the city, and that public safety that includes police, fire and parking enforcement accounts for 75 percent of the total salaries paid out by the city.

“Despite a COVID-19 hiring freeze, Mayor Fulop’s administration informed the City Council in May that it intends to add 47 new police officers to the force in the coming months,” Solomon said.  “The ten-year cost of those officers: roughly $35 million. That’s infinity times more than the Fulop administration spent on community led anti-violence initiatives from 2013 to the present.”

Jersey City, Solomon added, has one of the largest police forces for a city of its size, according to a Governing Magazine analysis of FBI data.

Solomon, who has been using Newark’s example for some of his proposals for Jersey City, said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka redirected up to $15 million from its public safety budget toward community-based anti-violence efforts. 

“Jersey City can and must make a similar investment,” he said. “To be clear, these types of programs are proven to reduce violence.” Solomon cited Urban Policy professor Patrick Sharkey who claimed that better after school programs and summer jobs programs are significant factors in keeping kids from getting involved in violent activities.

The Jersey City Recreation Department which has provided summer jobs programs has been in turmoil over the last few years with significant leadership issues. After school programs have been cut in Jersey City partly because of massive cuts in state aid.

Sharkey believes that street outreach workers can intervene and interrupt conflict before they escalate. Allowing local organizations to reclaim abandoned lots to turn them into gardens and other green space can also help reduce violence. Conflicts over who controls existing green spaces such as these has been a source of community tension over the last few years, especially in those high-crime areas such as MLK Drive.

“The idea that residents and local organizations can play a central role in creating safe and strong communities is not new, and it is not particularly controversial,” Sharkey said. “And yet we have never made the same commitment to these groups that we make to law enforcement — we ask residents of low-income neighborhoods to do the crucial work of building safe spaces on the cheap, often without any resources or compensation.”

Solomon said his support for these initiatives does not diminish his respect for public safety personnel.”

“We all have benefited from their heroism, especially on Dec. 10th, 2019,” he said, referring to the shooting that killed a police detective and the owners of a Jewish deli on MLK Drive – an incident that highlighted the growing tensions between the African American and the Jewish communities in Jersey City.

“But the question before us is how to build a just city,” Solomon said. “Using the police to solve every problem we face, from homelessness to domestic violence to traffic enforcement, is a mistake. Allowing public safety expenditures to crowd out funding for core city services and core social services is a mistake. We won’t solve this mistake by finding a few extra dollars from a grant here or a budget saving there. We need real change, and that’s what I commit to fight for.”

Responding to Solomon’s missive was Carmine Disbrow, President of the JPOBA, the union that represents Jersey City’s rank-and-file police officers who referred to the call for defunding police as “a dangerous one” 

This is especially true, Disbrow added, for communities like Jersey City where the cornerstone of effectively fighting crime has been community building.”  

“It also likely means laying off young police officers, the same men and women that are coming out of our neighborhoods and giving of themselves to make their city safer,” the career law enforcement officer said. “To be more clear, Councilman Solomon seems to miss the point that there is nothing about taking police officers out of the neighborhoods they come from, and where residents have asked for them to be, that is ‘anti-violence.’”

Editor's Note: The Publisher of TAPinto Jersey City also serves as a consultant to the JCPOBA

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