Dozens of residents who phoned in to the Jersey City Council meeting called on the governing body to defund the police department, pressuring their local officials to rethink how the city tackles crime and social justice issues.
By Corey McDonald/Hudson County View
During the public portion of last night’s meeting, more than 175 residents spoke, the majority of whom asked the council to rethink the 2020 fiscal year budget and take “radical steps” to defund the police.
“We need to be radical. We are the most diverse city in this country … We need to make sure that we’re taking funds and reappropriating them to groups where actual change can be made,” said Anupama Sapkota, a longtime city resident and a member of Solidarity Jersey City.
The group has called for a 50 percent cut to funds for the police and public safety departments.
“We really urge you all to take this chance, listen to the community and do something about it. It’s a big ask, but this is really a defining moment for the history of Jersey City.”
Mayor Steven Fulop, however, has been steadfast in his belief that reallocating funds away from the city police force would largely mean salary cuts or layoffs within the department and therefore would not work for the city.
“You can’t say that it’s a one size fits all problem across the country for every police department, because there are different types of cities and different types of issues,” Fulop said after an unrelated press conference this morning.
“Our police department is not perfect, but it happens to be one of the best departments anywhere, and I don’t subscribe to the view of laying off police officers just because that’s what the moment is speaking to.”
The murder of George Floyd earlier this year catalyzed an explosive civil rights movement that is prompting municipalities across the country to rethink the role of police officers in how they address crime and social justice issues.
In Seattle, the city council plans to vote on to cut 50 percent, or about $85 million, from their police budget.
And in Minneapolis, where Floyd’s killing was filmed and where protests initially erupted before spreading throughout the country, the city council unanimously approved a proposal to eliminate the city’s police department entirely last month
Jersey City’s marathon meeting last night went until 3:20 a.m., largely due to the number of public speakers.
Meanwhile, protests have been ongoing: a number of activist groups continue to hold rallies outside City Hall every Tuesday to protest systemic racism and police brutality.
It’s unclear how the movement will play out, or if council members will respond to the wave of unrest in the city by cutting police funding.
City officials, on June 18, announced they would allocate $1 million for a a dual-pronged, eight-month police de-escalation training program for the entire department – though the council is yet to vote on either aspect of the contract.
And this afternoon, the city swore in 15 new police officers, a continuation of Fulop’s expansion of the department, which sits at about 950 members.
Under his administration, a total of 620 police officers have been hired, growing the department from 769 officers in 2013 to 950 officers today.
They have also “placed an emphasis on diversifying the ranks to better reflect the community it serves while restructuring the department to enhance public safety citywide,” according to city spokeswoman Kimberly Wallace-Scalcione.
“From the mass shooting we faced in December to the challenges through the pandemic, the Jersey City Police Department is amongst the best in the country,” Fulop said in a statement.
“Our police officers have built strong bonds in the community, and working together we have been able to drive violent crime down to historic lows.”
Still, community activists have not faltered in their calls to send funding from the police to the department of health and human services.
“Invest that money in services that actually make us safer and stronger as a community, such as truly affordable housing, youth programs, access to quality healthcare and other social services,” said Elayna Thompson, another Jersey City resident.
“What do police have that the rest of us don’t? State sanctioned violence. They are not social workers, mental health experts, or addiction counselors — they are simply people our city gives a uniform and a gun to,” she added. “We have to rethink our default response of deploying state sanctioned violence to address every social problem we have.”
The city’s police budget is around $112 million, nearly 20 percent of the 2020 municipal budget and 43 percent of the city’s salary budget. The entire spending plan for Jersey City is estimated to be around $612 million – not including grant allocations.
Based on current budget data, the city has budgeted $109.9 million, or 43 percent of the city’s $258 million for city salaries, for their police department.
Not everyone on the council shares the mayor’s perspective, with Ward E Councilman James Solomon calling the current amount spent on police “unacceptable” last month and Councilman-at-Large Rolando Lavarro stating the time is now to start making changes.
“After George Floyd was murdered, activists have been coming to City Council meetings – one after another – calling on city leadership to reimagine policing in Jersey City,” he told HCV this evening.
“They are challenging politicians and the general public to think of what is possible if we invest significant dollars in caring and healing OUR family, particularly our black and brown brothers and sisters that have historically been the victims of systemic discrimination … I believe we can reprioritize our city budget in a way that reflects our values and calls on us to do right by our family, not only in words but in action.”
Follow Corey McDonald on Twitter @cwmcdonald_