Jersey City police chief talks reducing violent crime, illegal guns, off-duty details and more

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Jersey City Police Chief Michael Kelly sat down with HCV to discuss the measures taking to reduce violent crime, getting illegal guns off the streets, marijuana legalization, off-duty security details – among many other topics. 

“We’re always looking for partnerships as we move our crime plan forward in Jersey City, which January 3rd I got the job as the chief of police, so we had to come up with a comprehensive crime plan,” Kelly said when asked about “Project Safe Neighborhoods.”

“So we’ve moved that forward in the last nine months to the point where we are now establishing these partnerships and the federal government is one of those partnerships. So that’s what we’re pursuing right now.”

The initiative, spearheaded by federal authorities, is coming to Jersey City in an ongoing effort to curb violent crime.

When asked about what the JCPD has been doing to scale back violent crime, Kelly first praised the efforts of Mayor Steven Fulop for continuing to invest money in hiring officers and installing top of the line CCTV cameras.

He further stated that leading a successful department, capable of keeping all the city’s residents safe, largely hinges on three things: technology, intelligence and community policing.

“We came out with a program that initially started with traditional hot spot policing, so just identifying where the shootings were happening, where the violent crimes were happening. And then, we added some layers on top of that,” Kelly explained.

“Which started with an intelligence-based program that, in my opinion, I have not heard anybody else do what we do. So everybody has intelligence: every police department runs off intelligence, but where does the intelligence go? How operational is the intelligence? And how real time is the intelligence?”

Kelly continued that under this new program, street level police officers have immediate access to the same intelligence that ranking officers have, making it easier to stop crimes before they happen.

Jersey City’s top cop also expressed the importance of community policing, noting that the trust built between the department and regular citizens is invaluable.

“There’s a multiplier effect every time they have positive community interactions,” Kelly said.

Additionally, Kelly said bail reform needs to be fine tuned so that violent offenders, particularly those involved with gun violence, are not able to get back on the streets so easily.

“My issue has always been, when we’re dealing with gun violence, that there should be something more strict when it comes to evaluating whether a person gets another chance to go out on the street and pick up an illegal firearm and hurt one of our citizens,” the chief stated.

“To me, there’s a big difference between that and a person that was picked up for a narcotics offense.”

The police chief also touted crime statistics compiled as recent as yesterday, showing a significant drop off from last year, as proof that what they’re doing is working.

Kelly said that shootings are down 30 percent, with 45 non-fatal incidents in 2018, compared to 68 in 2017, as well as 66 total shooting victims this year, compared to 96 last year.

“I really like the direction we’re going quickly: so it’s not just a minuscule number, it’s not an insignificant number: these are folks that would ordinarily be injured. I think the numbers are not just trending, but trending hard and giving us assurance that we’re moving in the right direction in terms of our crime plan.”

We also asked for Kelly’s input on what potential impact marijuana legalization would have on the department.

Back in July, Jersey City Chief Municipal Prosecutor Jake Hudnut tried to implement a policy decriminalizing marijuana, but state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal shot that idea down.

More recently, Grewal has advised prosecutors throughout New Jersey to use discretion in these cases, though marijuana remains illegal.

From Kelly’s perspective, this whole spat didn’t change a thing about how the JCPD goes about day-to-day business.

“This is a public policy issue and I don’t look at it as a law enforcement issue,” he began.

“We’re going to follow what public policy develops for us, and personally, I don’t want whatever I’m thinking to get in the way of what the law is. So, to this date, what we’ve really done is nothing.”

While he didn’t have a lot to say on the subject, Kelly also addressed the controversy surrounding off-duty security details.

In one instance, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office has a case against three former Jersey City Police Officers: Capt. Joseph Ascolese, Lt. Kelly Chesler and Officer Michael Maietti alleging a slew of misconduct stemming from no-show jobs.

“I’m not really following the trial so I can’t make too many comments on it,” Kelly said. “We’re hoping that at some point, the Jersey City Police Department is in a position where we can move forward and just concentrate on keeping folks in the city safe.”

In light of an ongoing federal probe into off-duty security details by the JCPD, where 11 officers have pleaded guilty, Fulop and Public Safety Director James Shea announced in February that the city would be disbanding the program, which cost $16 million in 2017.

Kelly said that he is unsure what the future holds for the program, but the police chief said there are a number of factors being considered to make sure old mistakes aren’t repeated.

“It’s not just a matter of whose getting paid to do what, it’s also a matter of making sure that our citizens, and people who traverse through Jersey City, are safe. So you have all these projects going on, so it’s a lot more complicated than just ending a program. It’s making sure whatever the replacement is, that safety is paramount.”

City spokeswoman Kim Wallace-Scalcione revealed that the off-duty detail program still isn’t completely phased out, though a new program is expected to be ready by 2019.

“The off-duty program is 70-80% phased out at this time,” she began in an email sent this afternoon.

“The City has worked to strategically replace it using best practices from other departments around the country, and we’re currently working with some remaining companies to test their flag men to make sure the transition is 100% safe and effective before ending the off-duty officers at certain job sites. The phase-out process is on track to eliminate the program in its entirety by the end of this year.”

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a comment from city spokeswoman Kim Wallace-Scalcione.