Retiring Jersey City police chief talks the evolution of policing, COVID-19, peaceful protests, & more

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Retiring Jersey City Police Chief Michael Kelly discussed the evolution of policing, being on the job during COVID-19, responding to peaceful protests related to social justice, and much more during an extended phone interview.

Jersey City Police Chief Michael Kelly. Screenshot via Facebook Live.

By John Heinis/Hudson County View

“I’ve always thought that 2021 was gonna be the year. I’ll be 59 years old in March. I really wanted to do as much of the mayor’s term as I could, but I’ve gotten to the finish line I’ve set for myself,” Kelly told HCV.

“The window was just closing for me as far as Father Time. I wanted to retire three years ago, five years ago, so this has been on my mind a while. But when I was able to get the chief’s job, it was a privilege to stay and lead these men and women.”

Last week, city officials announced that Kelly would be retiring after putting the uniform on for the first time in late 1987 as part of the midnight patrol in the North District.

In terms of the major changes in law enforcement he finds striking, Kelly cited the recent developments related to use-of-force.

“Our cops are in a much, much more difficult situation because of what they face every single day. The spotlight goes on them all the time as they have to make split second decision,” the chief explained.

“Change is always good thing, but I’m not so sure that we’re not moving too fast especially when it comes to cops in an environment when we’re constantly under pressure. I’m not convinced that we’re not moving too fast.”

Late last year, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal implemented new policies emphasizing de-escalation over use-of-force, which requires all officers to intervene if they believe a colleague is using illegal or excessive force – along with a duty to provide medical assistance if necessary.

As far as his three-year tenure as chief goes, Kelly said that establishing an intelligence bureau to collect and distribute data to all members of the department, doubling man power for the street crime and cease fire units, and installing more CCTVs throughout the city has gone a long way “to interdict and solve violent crime.”

While Kelly noted he is proud of those initiatives being used to reduce violent crime, he acknowledged that the city recorded 17 homicides last year, compared to 13 in 2019 and 15 in 2018.

“We made significant reductions in 2018 and 2019, that includes 30 percent reductions in shootings, only to see 2020 reduce some of those positive numbers. When the environment changes, we have to change,” said Kelly.

“Sometimes there are spikes where it takes time to adjust and handle. Everyone saw a spike in crime. Hopefully in 2021 the environment stabilizes.”

Also former St. Peter’s Prep basketball coach, Kelly attributed some of those challenges to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When these police officers take off their uniforms, they’re back in their home environments and it’s a danger to their families. They’re not afraid of their own peril, they’re afraid of their families. But they’ve dealt with it and I’m very very proud that we don’t have any pushback from our PD,” he stated.

Kelly said he was proud to see his officers utilize PPE and continue to do their jobs without complaining, with approximately 160 infected and nearly a third of the roughly 970-member department quarantining during the height of the pandemic.

In light of the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests made their way across the country, with many calling for defunding the police.

Although Kelly of course does not agree with defunding, he said he understands why social justice is extremely important.

“Everybody believes in the tenancy of equality across the board and that includes the police officers of this city, so we are not only on board with people who are demonstrating [peacefully], but we want to make sure we reflect that right back,” he said.

“I was super proud of the way our cops handled ourselves and behaved. That was really important. I think one of the biggest reasons was I think we were strategically sound is the diversity of our police department is behind the movement of equality.”

Kelly also noted that his tenure could not have been successful without his team, which includes Nicholas Scerbo and Michael Gajewski – the latter who served as his chief of staff.

Although he will have no role in selecting his successor, which will ultimately be done by the mayor, he said that he thought both Scerbo and Gajewski would make great chiefs.

As far as what moments stuck out to him during his over three decades of service, Kelly said the deaths of his colleagues, including Mark DiNardo in 2009, Melvin Santiago in 2014, and Joseph Seals at the onset of the December 10th, 2019 domestic terror incident that claimed four innocent lives.

“I saw so many cops under fire remain brave and professional. If I had to put one thing to sum up my career, I’m talking about over 100 cops performing at a high level under stress and gun fire,” Kelly exclaimed.

“The amount of cops I saw put themselves in harm’s way: that’s the JCPD I know. I’m just so proud of this department and that day just drove it home. This is the greatest place to be and the greatest folks that I’ve ever been around.”

On top of making the city safer, Kelly indicated that a main priority of his was to restore respect for the JCPD: his predecessor, Philip Zacche, would be one of a dozen officers implicated in a probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office that targeted no-show off-duty details.

This ultimately had off-duty details put on hold as the city is working in earnest to bring them back under a new set of rules.

Despite those significant setbacks, Kelly believes he has done his part in restoring integrity to the department since 2018 when he became chief.

“There was a lot of image building necessary for the governor’s office, the HCPO, AG, and U.S. Attorney – a lot had to be done to prove this is an excellent police department. Now I leave it in a place where no one doubts that: I really believe that,” he stated.

“This department shines over and over again. I think we’ve done enough to remove that taint from the off-duty scandal.”

As far as last week’s insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Kelly said it was of course sad to see, but showed the importance of preparedness for law enforcement across the country since there is no way to predict what tomorrow will bring.

Kelly’s official retirement date is February 1st, but he will work his last day on January 29th. He says he’s thrilled he was able to have “the two best careers” as a basketball coach and a cop, able to do both at a high level.

As far as what’s next, he said he’ll figure that out another day after some rest and relaxation in the sun.

“I have no regrets and I feel pretty good about that journey. On January 31st, I plan to be on the beach and figure it out from there.”

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