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JC Police Struggle to Control Fireworks


The fireworks had been going off for twenty minutes before I decided that I’d had enough. I know my dog had. She had snuggled up to my bed and was looking up at me with her big brown eyes in heartbreaking terror.

Bleary eyed, I dialed 911. It was 12:23 a.m., no answer.  Three minutes later, I dialed again. Still no answer. My anger began to mount. In what universe does 911 not answer?  Twice? What if I was being robbed or my house was on fire?

Go to plan B.

There it was in my address book, the phone number for Jersey City Police, Eastern District. Maybe they’ll answer the phone.  Someone did. “Officer [something or other].” I explained the problem; a large group of men were setting off loud, professional looking fireworks in a parking lot about fifty feet from my bedroom window.  They had probably woken up half the neighborhood. Could they do something?  Wasn’t this illegal?  Wasn’t this dangerous? Wasn’t there a task force or something to deal with this?  The officer was apologetic.  “We’re very, very busy right now.  Let me forward you to dispatch.”   Before I could protest, he sent me back to 911. The phone rang and rang.  No answer.  Make that three attempts.

Setting off fireworks. Photo by Aaron Morrill

I hung up in disgust and dialed 911 again. Ten minutes after my first attempt to get through, I got a living, breathing human.  I yelled something about how outrageous this all was and how there would be hell to pay. The nice lady, clearly trained to deal with angry, sleep deprived hotheads like me making threats they couldn’t keep, promised she’d send a car as soon as one became available.  Yeah, sure, I thought.

I was shocked when five minutes later, two police officers walked into the parking lot. One of them bravely used his nightstick to knock over the rocket tubes, some of which were still smoldering.  The men scattered to their cars and drove off.

That the police eventually responded to my fourth attempt to reach 911 wasn’t a cause for celebration.  In reality it was too little, too late. My backyard Grucci wannabes had been at it for 40 minutes and had pretty much shot their load by the time the law arrived. A police officer within ten blocks could have located them immediately; no 911 calls, no high tech equipment needed.  In the end, the neighborhood had been awakened in the middle of the night and the perpetrators had had their fun with no repercussions. The proverbial barn door had been shut a tad late.

Apparently, the city was aware of the incipient fireworks problem.  According to the Jersey Journal, in June Police Chief Michael Kelly created a “Community Response Unit” to respond to fireworks and noise complaints. “There has been a staggering increase in resident complaints and related calls to the JCPD” mayoral spokesperson Kimberly Wallace Scalcione told the Journal.  She further laid some of the blame at the feet of a new New Jersey law allowing the possession of “certain sparkling devices and novelties.”  Confirming the old adage that “if you give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile,” people have used the looser law to justify travelling out of state to buy more powerful, illegal fireworks like firecrackers, roman candles and bottle rockets, the thinking goes.

In a diverse place like Jersey City, it’s no surprise that you get diverse opinions as to what should be done. “It’s been worse this year than ever” opined Tony Nation, 53, of the Village.  “I don’t remember having a two to three week lead-up [of firework use] before. There should be a 100% ban.” Pointing to the new law he added “it’s been so abused…a few people have ruined it for everyone.”   Matt Caruso, 29, of Van Vorst Park agrees. “The police department needs to get to work. I feel like it’s a matter of time until a building burns. It can’t possibly be so difficult to find where the explosions are coming from over and over and over again.”   Susanne Johansson of Van Vorst Park is not a fan. “Fireworks has [sic] been going on across my street for 4 hours now. This is insane, I have a dog that is at the point where he is hurting himself, that’s how scared he is. This has to stop.”

Fireworks burst. Photo by Aaron Morrill

Joseph Hume, 36, of Van Vorst Park looks at it more philosophically. “I empathize with dog owners who have negative reactions to the noise, but the 4th of July is a festive time for Americans. We are actually fairly tame if you compare our Independence Day festivities with the raucous events during Chinese New Year in Beijing, Diwali in New Delhi or New Years in Vienna.”  Rashena Wilson, 43, of Lafayette, doesn’t mind them, so long as they aren’t abused. “I’ve lived the neighborhood for 13 years now and am used to them, so they don’t bother me at all. However, I don’t have small children or pets so I don’t have the same complaints as others. I do feel for them though. This year they have been excessive… [t]he only problems they pose to me are the potential fire hazards …[t]here should be regulation and education so they are used more safely.”   April Kuzas, 41, of Greenville takes a middle ground. “There has been much more than normal, and I have a high tolerance for fireworks. I generally don’t mind them around the 4th of July but the two-month warm up was a bit excessive.”

However, the problem is much bigger and more serious than lost sleep and traumatized pets. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2018 alone, fireworks caused five deaths and were involved in an estimated 9,100 injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments.  And on Saturday, a Jersey City man died after being struck in the neck by fireworks. Moreover, according to the National Fire Protection Association, each year there are many more fires on the Fourth of July than any other day of the year, and fireworks are, by far, the leading cause of those fires. The Association also reports that in average each year, fireworks cause an estimated 18,500 fires.  Just in the last week, fireworks destroyed a home in Flatlands, Brooklyn and an apartment in Manhattan.

Yesterday we asked the mayor’s spokesperson for a comment on the issue. We haven’t received a response yet.  But to paraphrase Joseph Caruso, the city may need “to get to work” on what many perceive as a serious and growing problem.

Headline photo by Aaron Morrill

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City Council Meeting Focused on George Floyd


Chorus of Residents Calls For Police Department Reforms

In the wake of recent protests spurred by the killing of Minnesota resident George Floyd, residents of Jersey City called on the City Council to divest the police department of funding and invest more money in social services instead. To that end, the council voted Wednesday night to pass a resolution, initiated by Council President Joyce E. Watterman, that establishes an advisory committee to review the department’s “policies and procedures relating to police enforcement and discrimination.”

“In May, the situation that happened to George Floyd was horrible,” Council President Watterman said. “Being a black woman, I know what it’s like to be discriminated against. To deal with racism, you have to start somewhere. It’s an ugly thing and not easy to tackle. We have an opportunity now to get rid of some of the ugliness black folks have been facing for centuries.”

The council voted to designate May 25 as Black Lives Matter Day. It also voted unanimously to appoint Elizabeth Castillo chief financial officer of Jersey City, to re-appoint Carlo Abad  chief judge of the Jersey City Municipal Court, and on an urban farming initiative and other ordinances and resolutions.

Divesting and Investing

During the public comments section of the meeting, Jersey City resident A’driana Williams spoke to the City Council about attending a rally outside City Hall, last week, where more than 4,000 people voiced their support for Black Lives Matter. Williams and several other callers advocated defunding the police department and re-allocating that money to Jersey City’s public schools and to public programs that serve the needs of the community.

“I’m a student, and I know how much this district has failed me in terms of how much money has gone into the resources in our schools,” Williams told the council. “We have more security guards and police than nurses. We need to put more resources into our communities instead of more police. Our city’s budget is a reflection of its priorities. We need to show the city that our black citizens matter. Our education matters. Our tax dollars matter. Everything about us matters.”

Septuagenarian Doud David Williams said he believes a community review board is necessary to get rid of “bad apples” on the police force. He also said Jersey City police officers should be required to reside in Jersey City.

“If we had policemen who lived here, there would be a different attitude,” Williams said. “I remember Glenn Cunningham and Charlie Jackson, all of them lived in Jersey City in the black community. We need good policing and redistribution of funds that could go to social services that perhaps would be better in some areas than police.”

Another resident, Stanley Smith, presented a list of stipulations for police reform in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. He is seeking increased accountability for the use of excessive force, a community policing model that puts officers back on the beat, mandatory police de-escalation training, and increased mental health support for law enforcement.

Scott Welfel of Jersey City called in to say this moment in time presents a unique opportunity to re-imagine what Jersey City residents want from their police department.

“If you have a family member who suffers from addiction or has a mental illness and has an episode, who do you want to show up?” Welfel said. “Do you want someone with a gun who is trained with a command and control mentality, or do you want a professional and what they know about mental illness, what they know about addiction? What they know is to respond to this person as a human being to talk them down from that crisis, to get them the resources that they need. So, a council resolution that talks about an advisory committee? That is not re-imagining … no. Let’s take this moment to fully and fundamentally re-imagine the society we want to live in.”

The council voted 8–1 in favor of the resolution to establish an advisory committee with Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano abstaining.

Urban Farming

Up for a vote was a resolution authorizing Jersey City to contract with AeroFarms for $987,646 to construct and maintain indoor vertical gardens at 11 city-owned properties.

Back in September 2011, the city contracted with Friends of the Lifers Urban Farming Initiative to create a fully-sustainable hydroponic farm and farmer’s market in impoverished areas of Jersey City, but it was eventually abandoned. Now, the city hopes to grow vegetables (specifically lettuce) hydroponically to give away to Jersey City residents.

“We used to have community gardens; now they’re gone,” Councilman Boggiano said. “At a time like this, we don’t need this.”

Ward E Councilman James Solomon said he didn’t see the need to rush the resolution forward. “Without local job guarantees in the contract, there’s way more detail to go through,” he said.

Council at Large Rolando Lavarro, Jr.,  pointed out that although the vegetables would be free to Jersey City residents, they should only go to those in need.

“While it’s great the vegetables are free, I’m not sure of the cost analysis,” Councilman Lavarro said. “The one thing I will point out is that it is eligible to anyone who is a Jersey City resident, and I would urge Jersey City to put income qualifications on this. We should provide food for those who need food.”

The resolution was approved 6–3 with Councilmen Boggiano, Solomon, and Lavarro dissenting.

Black Lives Matter Day

To honor the death of George Floyd, Ward F Councilman Jermaine Robinson introduced a resolution declaring May 25 Black Lives Matter Day. The council voted unanimously to approve it.

“That horrific incident prompted communities all over the globe to acknowledge the inequalities of black life in the United States,” Councilman Robinson said. “I grew up in a household where I was told by my parents I mattered. On May 25, the world recognized that black lives really matter.”

For other coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement in Jersey City, click here.

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Post-Bostwick Avenue: Is it Time for Civilian Oversight of the Police?


“He bugging, he bugging …” Those are the words of an unidentified man videotaping last Tuesday’s street melee on Bostwick Avenue.  The man’s play-by-play would almost be humorous (“He hurt coach, take him take him out of the game”) if we weren’t watching something so troubling.

The video begins with a fistfight on the street between what appears to be two to four people. A crowd of ten to twenty people surrounds the fighters and, after a lot of yelling and pushing, successfully breaks them up. The hubbub dies down. The crowd begins to disperse. It looks like life is returning to normal on Bostwick Avenue.

The crowd is largely gone when the police arrive in a patrol car. Inexplicably, the video then stops. A second video then shows a police officer running after a black man in tan pants. The man attempts to run up the stairs to one of the houses and the officer grabs the man from behind. A second man comes from behind the officer and tries to pull him off the man in tan pants. A man next to them sitting on a chair gets knocked to the ground. A second officer goes to the aid of his colleague wrestling with the man in tan pants. More cops and civilians descend on the brawl. One cop gets knocked down and is seen wrestling with a civilian on the sidewalk. Some officers can be seen trying to separate people.

Enter a dark-haired police officer with sunglasses. Armed with a whip-like baton, he unleashes a savage beating on several men lying on the sidewalk. At least one is not moving and clearly posing no threat to anyone. The baton-armed officer is indeed “bugging.” By the end of the altercation, at least two men can be seen lying on the sidewalk on Bostwick Avenue, handcuffed and in physical distress.

Here’s what we know from analyzing the videos. First, by the time the police arrived it appears that the street fight was over. The people in the neighborhood had apparently broken it up, and the combatants had been separated. Second, violence broke out a second time after the police arrived — but this time only between police officers and civilians, not between civilians themselves. Third, while many officers appeared to have acted appropriately, at a minimum the force applied by the dark-haired officer with sunglasses was excessive.

In the wake of the incident, activists Chris Gadsen and Frank Gilmore alleged that the police used excessive force and called for the creation of a civilian complaint review board to investigate abuses. Police Chief Michael Kelly, on the other hand, said the police had acted appropriately and with “great restraint.” Carmine Disbrow, president of the Jersey City Police Officer’s Benevolent Association, said that “police lives were at risk” and that the violence was “precipitated by individuals who are more committed to creating chaos than by abiding to even the most basic of community standards.” On Sunday, a group of protesters marched from Berry Lane Park to the police department’s Greenville District and held a raucous protest.

The police department claims that pepper spray and batons were used only after one individual reached for an officer’s duty belt. From the videos available to the public however, it’s impossible to verify that assertion. One hopes that it is true, but without the body camera video of the initial interaction between the man in tan pants and the officer who pursued him, it will be impossible to know for sure how the encounter turned violent.

None of this is to say that cops don’t have a tough job. They do. Every Jersey City resident has an interest in the safety and success of our police.  Civilians, no matter how aggrieved, should not resist arrest nor intervene when an arrest is taking place.   The job of challenging what is perceived to be improper police conduct must be left to lawyers. But, similarly, it is vital that the police nurture a relationship of trust with those they police. Whether better “community policing” might have helped in this instance, we’ll never know. Suffice it to say, the videos show an unsustainable level of distrust between the police and the Greenville community.

A transparent investigation that includes witness interviews and disclosure of all body camera videos is required. Moreover, even if the belt-grabbing allegation is proven to be true, the police department will still have to explain how the baton-wielding officer’s actions were appropriate and if they weren’t what discipline the officer will face. The burden will be on the police department to demonstrate that it can credibly investigate itself. If this incident shows that it can’t, it will be time to create a civilian complaint review board.

 

 

Header: Photo by Aaron Morrill

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Activists Allege Police Brutality in Greenville Melee


Local activists staged an impromptu rally Sunday to mobilize Jersey City residents in response to alleged police brutality in quelling a fight in Jersey City’s Greenville neighborhood on May 5. The incident, which occurred on Bostwick Avenue,  resulted in three arrests and injuries to both civilians and police officers.

Footage of the episode captured by several videos showed officers using pepper spray and batons to subdue two residents, actions city police officials later forcefully defended as justified.

Nevin Perkins, a student at New Jersey City University and founder of the Jersey City coalition of Black Men United, organized the rally at Berry Lane Park on Garfield Avenue. About 15 people came out to the event, which ended with a peaceful march to the city’s Greenville police precinct.

“We’re here to set the fuse on the keg,” Perkins told a reporter. He said he hoped to encourage members of the community to take political action to protest the events that occurred in the aftermath of the brawl.

Based on what he saw from tapes of the incident, Perkins concluded “there was no proper de-escalation action by the officers” who responded to the scene. He said the community needs to work with the city “in creating a de-escalation tactic and in creating a better relationship with the police department.”

Additionally, Perkins said, “We need to see the police force as representative of the community not just in skin color [the Bostwick Avenue neighborhood is largely African-American] but also actual residency. I believe at least 50 percent of police force should live here.”

Perkins said he and his supporters want the city to release footage taken by the responding officers’ bodycams; to provide financial compensation to the victims of the alleged police brutality; and to release the names of the officers involved in the spraying and striking of the civilians “to see if there is a pattern of this particular type of behavior” by those officers.

Greenville resident Kenyaetta Williams, a board member of the nonprofit York Street Project, who helped prepare signs for the rally, said she came because she felt dissatisfied with the city’s response to the police action.

“I’m tired of the mayor putting his foot in his mouth,” she said. “I feel disrespected, and I feel he’s disrespected the community. As my grandmother would say, ‘Shine your light on the world to see.’”

Claro Sumague came to the rally with fellow members of the Philippine Youth and Student Organization “to show solidarity with the black community.” He said Filipinos were “also no strangers to police brutality,” particularly in the Philippines where, he said, “There are a lot of human rights violations — and it’s the same here in particular with black and brown communities.”

Sumague said the city should be focused more on aiding “essential workers” like nurses and health care aides who are putting themselves at risk during the Covid-19 crisis. “These workers need help like PPEs and food but, instead, they come home to see violence from law enforcement.”

In a taped press conference last week, city Police Chief Michael Kelly defended the officers called out to defuse the street brawl who, he said, were properly defending themselves against civilians’ efforts to touch or rip weapons from officers.

Kelly said the officers “acted with great restraint and used exactly the force necessary to bring the situation to a close.” Six officers responded to the initial call about the fight and more came as backup to aid their fellow officers, he added.

His position was echoed by city Police Director James Shea who said he saw nothing in the various tapes he viewed —including footage from police bodycams — to indicate the officers were deviating from their training “or doing anything contrary to their legal right to defend themselves from attack.”

Shea said officers deployed retractable batons to strike “legs, arms and the hip/buttocks area” only after the pepper spray “didn’t work to subdue” civilians.

Shea added, “I condemn the actions [by civilians] causing the officers to be called there in the middle of a pandemic.”

Asked by a reporter to explain what happened between the time the fight had appeared to end and the time officers arrived and took punitive action, Shea said he wasn’t able to answer. “I leave that question for later,” he said.

Shea said the footage from police bodycams has been turned over to the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office for review, a protocol he said the department follows in similar cases when excessive police force may have been used. He said the incident remains under investigation. Meanwhile, all officers involved in the incident remain on duty.

City Council President Joyce Waterman and Shea encouraged anyone with tapes of the incident or other information about it to contact the police department at 201-547-5477 or the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office at 201-795-6400.

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Jersey City Weeps for Detective Joseph Seals


This story originally appeared on ThePauwWow.org, the student newspaper of Saint Peter’s University.

http://www.thepauwwow.org/news/jersey-city-weeps-for-detective-joseph-seals/article_f13aa3fa-2123-11ea-9beb-338a7e807750.html

On Dec. 17, St. Aedan’s Church on Bergen Avenue was filled to the brim with family members, friends and police units to mourn Detective Joseph Seals, who was slain in the line of duty on Dec. 10.

Presided over by Cardinal Joseph Tobin from the Archdiocese of Newark, the funeral was attended by U.S. Attorney General William Barr, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, among other civic and religious leaders from all denominations from around the country.

Photo by Daniel Levin

The weather, which was cold and rainy, reflected the solemn sentiment on the inside of the church. Blue and black ribbons lined the pews, and Seals’ casket, which was brought from McLaughlin Funeral Home in a police-escorted procession, was adorned with an American flag.

Throughout the service, Seals’ honorable character was consistently brought up. The eulogizers praised his work as a police detective who worked to remove guns from the streets of Jersey City and who loved his job and the city that he served; they noted that he died a hero far too soon.

Seals, 40, was killed on Dec. 10 in a confrontation that began in the Bay View Cemetery in the Greenville section of Jersey City and that led to the deaths of five others, including the two assailants that killed him. Officials are now labeling the crime an anti-Semitic attack on the kosher grocery store.

In McGinley Square Pub on Montgomery Street, Angelo Hatziptrou stands by the belief that the violent incident does not represent Jersey City as a whole.

“Shootings can happen anywhere,” he said behind the bar of the pub he’s owned for five years.

Despite the rain, which did not let up at all during the service, bystanders stood behind the barricades to watch the funeral procession and wait until the casket left the church.

Due to the procession, streets such as Bergen Avenue were closed to accommodate the throngs of civilians and police officers in attendance.

“I think it’s going to affect the community in a large way, I think it’s going to affect the country in a large way,” said Haytham Elgawly, owner of The ClearPort clothing store in McGinley Square.  “I think it’s going to influence us bigger than what we think, but time and patience, see how it changes us.” Elgawly has lived in Jersey City his entire life.

On Friday, the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a charity whose mission is to assist firefighters, police officers, and members of the military who have sustained critical injuries or lost their lives while serving their country, announced that they would pay off Seals’ mortgage. An official GoFundMe campaign for Seals’ family has raised $575,000 as of Dec. 17.

Seals leaves behind his wife, Laura and five children.

 

Adrienne Romero, Neidy Gutierrez, Victoria Bishop-Smith and Diana Paredes contributed reporting.

Header: Photo by Alexandra Antonucci

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