Last week the city witnessed the heartbreaking and completely avoidable death of Andrew Jerome Washington at the hands of poorly supervised police officers from the elite Emergency Services Unit. Washington’s killing has rightly enraged many and brought calls for change. That change should begin with the departure of Public Safety Director James Shea, who has presided over the troubled police department since 2013.
Let’s start with Drew Washington’s tragic death last Sunday.
Washington, who had a history of mental illness and was known to the JCPD, was alone in his apartment acting “irrationally” when the ESU unit arrived at the behest of Jersey City Medical Center.
During a press conference on Monday, Shea and Mayor Fulop called on the Attorney General to release body cam videos they said would exonerate the officers.
They explained how the officers took up on a small landing outside Washington’s closed apartment door. They “attempted to establish rapport” with him, said Shea.
They waited for approximately 45 minutes. “When our supervisors were afraid that someone may be in medical distress in the apartment, they opened the door,” Shea continued. “We didn’t’ know if there was anyone else inside there or not.”
“They were charged by Mr. Washington with a knife in hand” said Fulop. “Once they were rushed, there was nowhere for them to go.”
One officer shot Washington with a Taser, the other shot Washington with his firearm. Washington died a short time later at Jersey City Medical Center.
The possibility that a man in the throes of a psychotic episode might arm himself with a knife was obvious to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of such incidents. So too was the knowledge that without a way to retreat, a gun would be the only way to avoid being hurt if Washington attacked.
The police knew that a knife might be present. That there was a risk of a violent confrontation is clear from Shea’s statements at the press conference. “They secured the door so he couldn’t surprise them,” said Shea. Later, they opened the door “to see if someone was hurt or bleeding” inside.
The risks that mentally ill people face with police have been well known, at least since the infamous case of Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly, emotionally-disturbed African-American woman, who was killed by New York City police after they knocked down her door and she brandished a knife.
In 2009, there was Martina Brown, a schizophrenic Jersey City woman who was killed by police after they knocked her door down and she, like Bumpurs, came at them with a knife. In 2012 Bayonne police shot and killed a mentally ill man armed with a knife holed up in his trailer. Earlier this year, Najee Seabrooks was shot by police in his Paterson apartment while experiencing his own mental health crisis. He too, reportedly waived a knife in the officers’ direction. And, of course, in Drew Washington’s case there was a history. The Jersey City police had shot Washington once before, ostensibly because they believed in that instance that he was capable of violence.
In short, Washington’s panicked and paranoid response last Sunday was entirely foreseeable and the police didn’t have a plan B that didn’t include pulling a gun.
In response to the outcry surrounding Washington’s killing, Fulop and Shea have called the shooting “justified.” And it may well be legally. But morally it can’t be defended. As Washington’s cousin, Tony Perkins, told mourners last week, “There’s nothing justifiable about barging into a mentally ill person’s home unprepared and untrained.”
Some commentators have suggested that, had Jersey City implemented the ARRIVE Together program, which pairs health care professionals with police, Washington might well be alive today. True enough. City leaders, including the mayor, have some explaining to do. But you work with what you’ve got. With proper guidance and planning the JCPD could have avoided killing Washington, even without health care experts.
Were this incident the only time Shea’s Department of Public Safety had come up short, we might not be so quick to judge. But his tenure has been a debacle in so many other ways.
Let’s start with crime overall. Shea’s record is embarrassing. During his first six years on the job, as Jersey City was becoming more affluent, crime overall went up 15.1%. During the same time in Newark, crime overall fell 42%. If the crime story has gotten better since 2019, there’s no way to know. In 2018, Shea and Fulop shut down “CompStat,” the public reporting of crime data the city had been making available and that other nearby cities such as Newark and New York City still provide. Data is unavailable from the F.B.I. due to a change in the reporting system. This has left Jersey City residents in the dark about our crime situation.
Shea’s tactics may be another reason Jersey City doesn’t feel safer. Despite protests from residents and his own top brass, Shea has steadfastly clung to the practice of deploying police in “fixed posts” that keep the police from moving quickly to crime hot spots. A 2021 story about one crime-ridden block in Greenville illustrated the problem.
Shea has also resisted innovative approaches to law enforcement like the community policing implemented with great success in Newark.
Then there’s the question of staffing and budgeting. Last month, the normally pliant City Council stacked with Fulop allies, called Shea out for $13.5 million in excess overtime costs. Shea has also tripled the number of deputy chiefs from an average of six before he came on to the current 19. Most of these individuals earns over $200,000. In 2021, Shea promoted Tawana Moody to police director, enraging many in the department who pointed out that she lacked virtually any policing experience. Moody earns in excess of $200,000.
Meanwhile, the city has paid out huge sums for police misconduct under Shea, including the most recent settlement for $6.95 million. One can be certain that Drew Washington’s family is lawyering up right now.
According to reports, morale among the rank and file is abysmal. Officers on patrol who earn as little as $45,000 lack basic equipment, including “MDT” computers which give officers the ability to gather vital information while responding to calls, license plate readers critical to tracing suspects in drive-by shootings, and enough patrol cars. At the same time, there’s been no expense spared for police department bigwigs. They just moved into a plush new $120 million headquarters.
Then there’s cannabis. Shea is trying to fire four Jersey City police officers for using cannabis off duty. None were alleged to have been high while on the job. Yet, Shea has pressed ahead, and he has done so despite a directive from the state’s attorney general not to fire employees for cannabis use, even though two judges and the Civil Service Commission have ruled against him, and despite the fact that virtually no other department in the state has taken his position. In so doing, Shea has infuriated many police officers who feel cannabis use, which is constitutionally protected, should be treated no differently than alcohol.
Finally, there’s the “small” matter of Jersey City’s 911 communications center, which continues to be mired in dysfunction. As reported extensively here, the center has been plagued by chronic understaffing and poor management, which, in turn, has compromised public safety. Complaints about unanswered calls to 911 have abounded. Many of the call center’s employees are owed thousands of dollars in back pay because of a malfunctioning payroll system that the city refuses to fix. Many of the staff have not received state-mandated training; and management has failed to develop a protocol for handling “active shooters.” Shea’s solution has been to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire a consultant that he hired twice before, without result.
Like the police department’s response to Drew Washington’s crisis last Sunday, much of Shea’s tenure has been a colossal failure. It’s time that he and the mayor recognize this. It’s time for Shea to go.