Jersey City residents voice strong demand to defund the police during council meeting

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At last night’s Jersey City Council meeting, the majority of nearly 60 public speakers demanded that the governing body defund the local police department and divert the savings to social programs, asking them to follow suit of cities such as Minneapolis following the tragic killing of George Floyd.

Photo courtesy of Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh.

By Marc Bussanich/Hudson County View

An unusually large number of residents spoke during the public portion of the virtual meeting, by far the largest since the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the council to utilize Microsoft Teams.

Their comments preceded the vote on a resolution sponsored by Council President Joyce Watterman to form an ad hoc committee to review the Jersey City Police Department’s policies and procedures that would consist of nine to 12 members.

David TK Spencer, a Jersey City resident since 2017, expressed shock that the city’s police budget is $112 million, nearly 20 percent of theĀ  2020 municipal budget – which is estimated to be around $612 million.

He thinks believes that most of the JCPD budget should be redirected to other priorities.

“It’s been said many times tonight that a major portion of the police department’s budget must be diverted to things that actually strengthen our neighborhood such as affordable housing, education, health care, drug addiction treatment and other social programs,” said Spencer.

Naturally, he’s in favor of a civilian complaint review board that must have teeth and the resources to discipline police officers.

“To be blunt, officers should be scared to do anything that would cause the board displeasure.”

Elayna Thompson echoed those sentiments during her remarks to the council.

“We are so lucky to live in one of the most diverse cities in the nation and our government must serve and protect all of its people,” said Thompson.

“The only way to do that is to take money away from the police department and invest those funds in the community.”

On the other hand, one speaker couldn’t believe what he was hearing, chiding the speakers for calling for defunding the police and accusing them of being members of “a pro-Marxist organization,” Solidarity Jersey City.

Rod Hezarkhani is the son of immigrants from Iran, who fled after the Shah was toppled in the 1979 Iranian Revolution. His family history informs his worldview about why he believes calls to defund the police are ridiculous.

“This is playing with fire. I have to tell everyone who is listening that once upon a time the protest against the Shah, the King of Iran, was about human rights. This ended in a nightmare that still exists today,” said Hezarkhani.

He referenced the ongoing protests at Seattle where the police have reportedly abandoned one of their precincts near City Hall as an example of how chaos will rein if Jersey City goes forward with defunding the police.

“In Seattle, there is a literal armed Marxist rebellion that has claimed territory. I have studied how revolutions happen. This is madness, and as a major city we need to be committed to making sure that this doesn’t take hold here.”

He did concede that some reforms identified by a civilian complaint review board could help identify bad actors that shouldn’t be protected.

“But defunding the police … you are risking our way of life,” exclaimed Hezarkhani.

A couple of the council members said they agreed with some of the comments made by the public, such as the formation of a civilian complaint review board, which now has calls for expedited state action following the introduction of a bill by Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-31).

Additionally, Ward D Councilman Yosef Saleh said that there must be action on the state level to address the ethnic and racial disparity in the state’s prisons.

“For every black person that is in college, there are three in jail. And for every Hispanic person in college, there’s about 2.7 that are in prison. It costs more to incarcerate than to educate,” said Saleh.

“So we have to do a holistic view of all our priorities, not just on the municipal level, but on the state level as well.”

However, Councilman-at-Large Rolando Lavarro said that there needs to be a rethinking of priorities, especially when it comes to police overtime.

He’s been sounding the alarm over police overtime since last year when we interviewed him after a council meeting in August.

“I pointed out last year that, even before we approved the budget, that $6.5 million had already been spent, and ultimately overspent by $5 million in overtime money that could have been invested in other areas such as school funding because we continue to have a school funding crisis,” said Lavarro.

“So, the timing is now to begin reimagining as folks said and to reprioritize our budget, and I want you to know that I am committed to doing that.”

The council approved the resolution to form an ad hoc police committee by a vote of 8-0-1, with Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano abstaining.

Asked after the meeting, Boggiano, a former police detective, said that he abstained because he felt that the unions and former police officers weren’t given the chance to weigh in on the measure prior to the vote.

The committee will be charged with making findings as to the effectiveness and fairness of JCPD policies, and propose amendments.

And it will be made up of three council members; one retired police officer or judge; one community leader; one religious leader; one educator; and one representative from each of the city’s six wards.

Meanwhile, Watterman challenged those who told her that the resolution didn’t do enough.

“It’s a start, some of you may not like it, but I believe with this civilian complaint review board … the voice of the people will be heard.”

Furthermore, Jersey City Policemen Benevolent Association President Carmine Disbrow welcomed the possibility of working with the committee.

“If the intention is to engage in open and honest dialogue about policing in Jersey City, the committee can certainly be a positive thing. We hope they will allow us to share the expertise and experience of our members,” he said in a statement this morning.

“Our union has always sought out positive ways to engage the community we serve and we are hopeful that this effort will give us a further chance to do just that.”

None of the council members directly spoke about the possibility of defunding the JCPD, but Mayor Steven Fulop said in an email blast this afternoon that he didn’t support laying off newly hired officers.

” … The JCPD budge is 99% is salaries so when people want cuts in that budget that translates to cuts in officers which based on N.J. law means the last officers hired are the first to be let go. So that means that defunding the budget translates to officer layoffs,” he wrote.

“In government, layoffs (by law) don’t allow for an arbitrary selection of good performers vs. bad performers. Rather, layoffs in government mean that the last officers hired are the first to be let go.”