At last week’s virtual city council meeting more than 50 Jersey City residents called in imploring the legislators to defund the Jersey City Police Department by 50 percent in the 2020 municipal budget. They called for a halt to the hiring of 23 police recruits heading off to the police academy and asked the council to defeat a resolution for a police presence at public housing developments and for additional monies for protective armor.

Residents and Council Divided on Policing

Jersey City resident Vanessa Dodgson-Thomas lives in Ward F and volunteers with the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition Movement and other community groups that demonstrate outside Jersey City Hall every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Dodgson-Thomas asked the city council to listen to its constituents and “take action” on their behalf.

“We are demanding a reallocation of Jersey City Police Department funds to services that will better serve the community, particularly parts of the community that are chronically under-funded at the moment,” Dodgson-Thomas said. “Employment programs, mental health programs, affordable housing, better funding for our schools, the list of where these funds could be put to better use is endless. We don’t need investment in more police officers. We need investment in our community. We know Jersey City is not an equitable place to live. We need to change that. Adding another 23 police officers, purchasing armor, placing police officers in Jersey City housing sites and all the while cutting the youth development recreation funding, this is not what the community wants. If you don’t hear that, you’re not listening.”

Elayna Thompson, a member of Solidarity Jersey City and a Ward E resident, asked the city council to make a bigger decrease in the 2020 budget for the police department and invest that money in services that make the community safer and stronger like affordable housing, youth programming, and quality healthcare.

“Why would you reject the proposed budget amendments tonight?” Thompson asked. “Jersey City is facing a $70 million shortfall.”

Ely Tamman of Ward F agreed with Thompson, saying community services are what the people of Ward F need.

“Cops don’t make communities safe, resources do,” Tamman told the council. “We need social workers. We need social services. We need education, mental health access, and youth services. This is what makes communities safe.”

Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley voted in favor of hiring the 23 police recruits because what matters to her in Ward A are the calls she receives for more, not less policing, she said. People who live in public housing developments want a police presence and police patrolling the streets.

“I don’t see defunding the police as a way to go and as a way the residents of Ward A want to go,” Councilman Ridley said. “What matters to me are the residents of Ward A, and what sticks out in my mind are areas like Triangle Park and Neptune Avenue, people stealing things off porches on Cottage Street. I get calls all the time for more policing from people who want a cop patrol in their car. The fact that people who live in housing developments don’t want police presence, they do. They want the police presence, and they want social services. We need to look into better options and find a unique balance between the two.”

Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh agreed with Councilwoman Ridley, and although he voted against defunding the JCPD, he said he hopes in the future the city can reduce the number of police and live in a “community in harmony.”

“I do want accountability for police,” Councilman Saleh said. “I want something sustainable that holds this profession to account.”

Ward E Councilman James Solomon voted against the hiring of 23 police officers stating it sends the wrong message to the community.

“Actions matter more than words,” Councilman Solomon said. “We’re saying with this vote and budget, adding officers is a more important priority for the city than other things we can do. Life-long residents of every ward in the city spoke tonight. It’s important to listen to all the folks.”

Council President Joyce E. Watterman, who voted in favor of hiring the 23 recruits, said that when she took office in 2013, the police department did not reflect the Jersey City community. She said the council made a commitment to do just that.

“We want the police department to reflect the community,” she said. “I’m not against police officers. I don’t want to defund the police. We have good officers who work hard and put their lives on the line, (but) there is racism in police officers.. What (happened to) George Floyd allowed us to have a conversation that was hidden in the background for decades. Police brutality does exist. This racism goes deep. I don’t want to defund the police. I want the police to learn our culture. And we need our own police academy here in Jersey City.”

The resolutions to hire 23 police recruits, to purchase replacement body armor for the JCPD, and to provide on-duty police services to the Jersey City Housing Authority were approved 7-2 with Councilmen Solomon and (Rolando) Lavarro, Jr., dissenting.

Refining Bergen Avenue’s Bike Lane

The council voted unanimously to approve the second reading of an ordinance to amend parking and street cleaning restrictions to accommodate protected bike lanes on Bergen Avenue. Several residents from the Journal Square area called in with their support for the ordinance saying protected bike lanes help those who don’t own cars to safely travel to other city locations. Angela Roo, who lives in Ward B, said that when she worked in downtown Jersey City she could commute safely using the bike lanes.

“Additional bike lanes in Jersey City are actually enabling people who live in areas with worse public transportation to access places in Jersey City (like downtown) that hire numbers of employees,” Roo said. “I was able to go there for recreation and shopping as well. I fully support the continuing expansion of bike lanes in Jersey City.”

Anupama Sapkota, a resident of Ward C, called in support for the bike lane ordinance: “It’s a very important infrastructure that we need to enact in our city,” she said. “There’s been a 13-year study done in the Journal of Transport and Health published in 2019 that states ‘protected bike lanes in a dozen cities led to a drastic decline in fatalities for all users of the road.’ We shouldn’t lose sight that a lot of Jersey City residents are commuters who don’t have the luxury of affording a car. Creating these protected bike lanes will enable us to become a more inclusive community.”

Gary Spingeren, who lives downtown, said he’s all for cyclists sharing the road with car drivers, but unfortunately many cyclists don’t follow the rules of the road.

“I do think we need to make this community more connected and public transportation is a paramount priority,” Spingern said, “but I can’t tell you how many times, either walking or driving in the city, bicyclists continually ignore the laws of the road. I’m more inclined to increase accessibility to current public transportation. Let’s bolster that end of it. We’re trying to make everybody happy, but it’s going to make more problems than it’s worth. We’re going to have accidents pile up and scramble to fix them. I don’t think we have enough available information.”

To clarify, Councilwoman Ridley addressed the significance of the ordinance.

“The bike lanes in effect are already there,” Councilwoman Ridley said. “This ordinance is just controlling the parking situation. This doesn’t remove the current bike lanes.”

Business Administrator for Jersey City Brian Platt agreed with Ridley: “This is just adjusting the street sweeping schedule on the street, moving some bus stops. It’s essentially optimizing the traffic flow based on the feedback we’ve gotten from the residents there. Cars will no longer have to move a couple times a week for street cleaners.”

Councilman Lavarro clarified some of the sticky issues surrounding the ordinance. He said the issues surrounding the Bergen Avenue bike lane are more about how it had been installed. It seems the lane was created without community input.

“Literally overnight, the summer of last year, the bike lane was installed,” Councilman Lavarro said. “Councilman (Richard) Boggiano went on vacation and (when he came back) found a bike lane installed in his ward. That’s how that happened. Members of the community expressed concern including the business district, St. Aedan’s Church, the Coptic church there, (and) the school communities, as well. There was a lot of input not taken in. Churches couldn’t bring a limousine up to a church curb to bring a casket into the church. They talked about children departing and going to school. Throughout this process, this whole issue has been framed as an either-or proposition. Either you have a bike lane or not. We all want the same thing. Bike safety for bicyclists, pedestrians, and drivers as well.”

Note: Although council meetings are usually held on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month, the next council meeting will be on Thursday, Sept 10, at 6 p.m.

For further recent news about the police in Jersey City, see the following recent Jersey City Times articles:

What Does Defunding the Police Mean?

City Council Focused on George Floyd

Opinion: It’s Time For Community Policing

Juneteenth: A Broken Promise

Born and raised in Jersey City, Sally Deering spent 13 years as a features writer and columnist for The Jersey Journal. Syndicated by the Newhouse News Service, Sally’s weekly column ran in papers throughout...

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