Homeless fight
Homeless fight

A business owner downtown gets to see what residents of Greenville and Bergen-Lafayette have complained about for years

I had just gotten off the phone with Sergeant Kilroy of the Jersey City Police Department’s Eastern District when I learned a fight had broken out.

A Two Boots Pizza employee called me. “He just got the sh*t kicked out of him. Now he’s coming in,” the employee said with a tinge of panic in his voice. I told him to call 911.

The “he” my employee was referring to was the young man with a mop of disheveled brown hair and a preference for 24-ounce cans of Budweiser ICE who had recently appeared on the pedestrian mall and, much to my dismay, made a habit of camping out for long stints at one of our four sidewalk tables for customers, ranting, pacing and smoking. Now he had been beaten up.

In my last interaction with him, I asked him to sit at one of the new benches installed by the city. He called me a “fagg*t” and told me to “suck [his] c*ck.”

I took his taunts as they had to be taken: the delusional tirade of a mentally ill person deserving of society’s compassion and help. I walked away.

Since starting the Jersey City Times, I’ve tried to keep my ownership of Two Boots Jersey City walled off from my work as publisher of the paper. They are entirely different endeavors, the former borne of my affection for Two Boots pizza and the latter by my interest in local politics and good government.

Yesterday these two endeavors merged. My pizza business was now raising questions about Jersey City’s homeless and policing policies.

Sergeant Kilroy wasn’t the first cop I’d spoken with yesterday. Earlier, I had approached two officers who were sitting inside their car at the Grove Street entrance to the mall. There was nothing they could do, they said through the rolled-down window. As long as he knew his name and where he was, the young man was free to roam the streets and, yes, sit down at our tables. They could get him to move, but that was about it. It’s a free country.

And that was Sergeant Kilroy’s message as well. Yes, he agreed, the young man was technically trespassing, but even if they arrested him, he’d be out within hours. “This is the result of bail reform” he explained. “Now, even if we arrest someone for an aggravated assault, if they have no priors, they’re out immediately.”

But why, I asked, are the police stationed at the ends of the pedestrian plaza? At least if they were walking the beat, they could stay on top of what was going on in the middle of the block where Two Boots and other businesses are located. They could intervene as things happened rather than having to react after we came looking for them.

Sergeant Kilroy was apologetic. “I have no discretion here. The orders to post them at the ends of the mall come from the very top.”

Sergeant Kilroy refrained from offering his own opinion. His hands were tied. He said I’d have to take it up with the politicians who make these decisions.

As it turned out, the consequences of having the cops remain fixed like sentries at one end of the mall became even more obvious to me when I looked at the video feed from our outdoor camera.

First, you can hear the young man talking excitedly from his perch at the Two Boots table, to someone out of view. A man with a bike emerges from the left and the volume rises as the two trade insults and threats.

YouTube video

The bike rider sits down to eat. When he gets up a few minutes later, apparently to retrieve his bike, the young man tries to punch him. The two tumble to the ground. A man who had been seated nearby watches and apparently films. He tries to calm the bike rider.

YouTube video

Eventually, the bike rider gets off the homeless man and rides away.

The police are nowhere to be seen before, during and after the fight.

The now battered young man then gets up, rips off his shirt and grabs the food left by the biker. He retakes his seat in front of Two Boots and then violently throws the food down on the sidewalk.

YouTube video

I get it. The police can’t be everywhere. But maybe, just maybe, had the police been patrolling on foot, they would have nipped this potentially serious incident in the bud. And maybe it wouldn’t fall to untrained employees of a pizzeria to confront a mentally ill and potentially violent young man.

I have written critically about the Jersey City Police Department before, not about the Sergeant Kilroys or the patrol officers with whom I’ve had almost uniformly positive experiences, but about upper management, the people who gave the orders that had two cops sitting in their car on Grove Street.

Criticizing the higher-ups has its costs. Last year, in a case of “shoot the messenger,” JCT was blacklisted by the mayor for showing that crime in Jersey City had gone up under his watch. It took a strongly worded letter from a Yale Law School clinic to get the mayor to put us back on the press list.

As a society, we ask the police to do a lot. And dealing with mentally ill homeless people is a particularly vexing problem. But when it comes to this or any other potential policing problem, it’s hard to imagine that it helps to tie the police department’s scarce manpower to fixed posts.

Jersey City Police at fixed post on Grove Street
Jersey City Police at fixed post on Grove Street

And the problem of fixed posts isn’t just a downtown problem. In fact, it’s far worse and more consequential on the south side of the city. At a community meeting in June last year, angry and desperate residents from Wilkinson Avenue complained that police at fixed posts on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. couldn’t leave their posts to address issues just a half a block away.

And just two weeks ago, at a meeting on public safety convened by Ward F councilman Frank Gilmore, residents again questioned the policy. Public Safety director James Shea, defended it, saying “I believe this is the best use of our resources.”

Yesterday, as a fight broke out that could have resulted in serious injury, as business was interrupted, as the mayor’s prized pedestrian mall looked ever more like a dystopian hellscape, two police officers were sitting in their patrol car at a fixed post unable to help.

If this is what “the best use of our resources” looks like, we’re in trouble, whether it’s Newark Avenue or MLK.

Aaron is a writer, musician and lawyer. Aaron attended Berklee College of Music and the State University of New York at Purchase. Aaron served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. He received a J.D....