What does “Defunding” the Police Mean?

In 2020, 43 percent of Jersey City’s salary budget will go toward the police department, reported Ward E Councilman James Solomon recently via email and Instagram.

In the aftermath of the police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis Police Officer and the ensuing national protests to defund the police, this is no insignificant statistic. But how Jersey City should change its own spending and policing practices depends on which residents and politicians one asks.

“It really is about your priorities, and the mayor’s priority is in essence that the police are the most important thing that the city [has] and therefore they need a vast majority of the funding, and I just think that’s sort of out of balance,” said Solomon.

In the 2019 Municipal Budget, the Jersey City Police Department received $106,169,591 for salaries and wages, and $1,410,339 for “other expenses,” totaling $107,579,930. Renovations of police district buildings were budgeted to be $58,200,000.

Community programs, such as the Summer Food Program, which provides nutritious meals and snacks for children in low-income areas, received a budget of $711,126.

To Solomon, who represents the Downtown Jersey City neighborhood, “defunding the police”  means reallocating funds to anti-violence initiatives and to health and human services.

“For me, we need a strong police department, and at the same time, we need a strong, well-funded community that is specifically working on anti-violence initiatives for the community,” he said.

“We should fund recreation opportunities, we should fund better health services in the communities. Our police in essence have become a part of our first responder team to address homelessness, and I think that’s a big mistake because it’s not what they’re trained to do, and it has the potential to result in more negative outcomes. We should have trained outreach teams, and Jersey City has a trained outreach team, but it’s underfunded.”

Jersey City resident John Hines wants funds reallocated, too. But he also wants more community involvement from police officers.

“I don’t think the solution is defunding them, I think the solution is taking the allocated money and putting it [in] other places like back into the community,” he said. “If you look right now you have police on every corner in this town but most of us are afraid of them. Some of these cops will be on the same corner for months and months and nobody will even know their name.”

While Solomon and Hines may think of defunding the police as simply reallocating funds, Jersey City teenager A’dreana Williams disagrees.

“I think the term ‘defunding’ the police is used so that it can ease people into the idea of abolishing the police because anybody who can understand what’s happening to black people in this country and black people on this earth [can] understand that defunding the police is not enough, and we need to abolish the police,” she said.

Williams, an 18-year-old recent graduate of McNair Academic High School and former member of its Black Diaspora Club, explained that police reforms alone are not enough because the very structure of policing in the United States is oppressive.

“It’s an oppressive structure that cannot exist in order for true liberation to be,” she said.

According to Williams, McNair students are forced to go through metal detectors to enter the school and are then scanned with a handheld wand, given an identification card proving that they were students, and called by numbers.

When one of her friends was sent to a juvenile detention facility, he reported back that in terms of security apparatus, there was little to no difference between “juvie” and high school.

Compared to the massive resources dedicated to security, McNair has only one nurse to attend to the entire student population. According to Williams, the school used to have two, but one of them got laid off due to “cuts to the budget.”

So, what would Williams like to see from the Jersey City government in regard to policing? For starters a formal apology for “what happened on Bostwick Avenue,” referring to the May 6 fight on the street in Greenville that was widely criticized for the police’s use of pepper spray and batons. Beyond that, Williams would simply ask for less policing as a whole and for certain officers to be retrained to use their talents in different roles — community organizers, social services, etc.

“If the mayor prioritized us black people and his black citizens, he would say ‘There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to fix this problem. No matter how much it costs us, we will fix this issue because not only is it a Jersey City issue, it’s an American issue,” she said.

It’s an issue that will be discussed in the coming months.

Much of the June 12 City Council meeting was devoted to the subject of reforming the city’s police department. And at the urging of Council President Joyce Watterman, the council just voted 8-1 (with Councilman Richard Boggiano abstaining).to form a committee to examine a variety of different police procedures.

Boggiano did not respond to a request for comments.

But Jersey City is not monolithic in its criticism of the police.

Resident  Norman Hart favors reallocating money from the police toward after-school programs and the greater community but he is sympathetic toward the police and the purpose they serve.

“I feel we need to get rid of the bad cops within the community, but I feel like all police aren’t bad, and police should still have their job, because if we defund the police then how are we going to stay safe,” he said.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop agrees.

“Our officers serve as mentors, most of them live in the city; they are coaches, they do positive work. I don’t understand this defund the police conversation as we can invest more in social services for sure without defunding public safety,” the mayor Tweeted.

Flyers have been circulated around the city that urge residents to contact Mayor Fulop and not allow defunding, saying the Jersey City Police Department is “filled with heroes” and that the “city is safe because of their work.”

The source of the flyers could not be determined.

Then there’s a comparison with Newark, NJ, since its population is only six percent greater than that of Jersey City. Newark’s 2019 police department budget was $155,000,000 — 45 percent higher than Jersey City’s. That makes Jersey City’s public safety budget appear small.

As for Williams, a self-described “black child desiring to be prioritized,” the hope remains that local government will take heed of the overwhelming call for fundamental change.

“We need to start investing in a government that cares [rather] than a government that punishes,” she said.

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Protest in front of Greenville Precinct

Opinion: It’s Time for Community Policing

Shortly after Mayor Fulop’s election in 2013, he asked me to join the city’s Public Safety Advisory Board. It was a newly formed body in keeping with candidate Fulop’s stated goal of being more inclusive and transparent. The board, which would meet once a month, had no specific mandate or charter, but I figured why not. Maybe with my background as an assistant district attorney and criminal defense lawyer, I could make an impact.

One of my fellow board members was the late Bill Braker, an ex-cop, ex-freeholder, ex-con and, at that time, the president of the Jersey City NAACP. Bill came off as gruff and not a little intimidating. At one of the meetings, one of us (I can’t remember whether it was Bill or I) suggested that Jersey City implement community policing.  All of a sudden Bill became quite passionate. “You’ve got to get your people out on the street interacting with the community,” he told director James Shea. I chimed in in agreement.  Mr. Shea listened to us politely.

As an assistant district attorney, I’d witnessed New York City’s first foray into community policing in the late 1980s and become a believer.  It made perfect sense to me that the only way cops could gain trust and prevent and solve crime was to return to walking the beat, a practice that most U.S. police departments relied on for a good part of the twentieth century.

A few days after our meeting I went so far as to email Director Shea a New York Times article about the success of community policing in Camden, New Jersey. (Camden has not coincidentally been touted a lot lately for its success rebuilding its police department, lowering crime, and working with the community.)

I don’t know if Mr. Shea ever read it.

I couldn’t help but think of Bill as I walked up Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive this past Sunday afternoon gathering quotes for my colleague Alexandra Antonucci’s article on  defunding the police.  A twenty-something man who would only identify himself as “Slack” was blunt.

“They don’t do s— … all they doing is destructing our community and f—–g with us. They don’t protect, they don’t do none of that.”

Would he call the police for help? I asked. “We call each other … I can’t stand the mother f—–s.  It’s gotten worse.”

Then there was the voluble sixty-something John Hines.

“If you look at it right now, you have police on every corner in this town, but most of us are afraid of them. Some of these cops be on the same corner for months and months, but nobody even know their name. There’s no community involvement. Back in the sixties or fifties, everybody knew the community cop that walked the beat. When I came up there was the … PAL [Police Athletic League]. There is no longer that. It all starts with the [kids]. It all starts with educating the mindset of a different generation.”

A young woman named Alex Fahmy complained that the police “are not really doing their job” and “take very long to come to a crime scene.”

When asked whether the police are responsive to the community, she said “not at all.”

So here we are. It’s six years after Bill Braker and I broached the subject of community policing with the city’s public safety director, and people of color in Jersey City appear to have little trust in — or respect for — its police force. I don’t think Bill or I were ever under the illusion that our suggestions carried enough weight to change policy but I can’t help but wonder if things might have turned out differently had Jersey City embraced community policing back then.

One popular solution being bandied about is “de-escalation” training.  To that end, the mayor has proposed spending $1,000,000 on Seal Team Six-inspired “Tomahawk Strategic Solutions.” Given that Tomahawk’s “team” has all the ethnic diversity of a dinner party hosted by David Duke, it’s not surprising that local activists are pushing back and demanding a seat at the table.

There’s no doubt that de-escalation training is needed. Just last month, police descended on Bostwick Avenue in response to a fistfight (which had largely ended by the time they arrived) and ended up engaged in a full-blown brawl with local residents, several of whom ended up arrested and injured.  A shining example of de-escalation and community relations it was not.

But even if implemented perfectly, de-escalation training will only go so far.  Sure, it will keep bad situations from getting worse. But why not be more ambitious?  Why not try to prevent bad situations from occurring in the first place? Why not focus on building relationships and gaining the trust and cooperation of people in the neighborhoods you serve?  Why not get out from behind the glass of your patrol car or away from that corner you’re posted to? It seems obvious and eminently doable.

If I as a complete stranger can walk down the street and get people to open up and share their thoughts and concerns, as I did on Sunday, Jersey City police can too.

It’s time for community policing.








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