Overall crime is down in Jersey City, but not anxieties.
The murder rate has doubled from 2012 to 2014, according to the newest statistics released last month for the year 2014 in Jersey City. Other areas of crime declined from 2013 to 2014. Public Safety Director James Shea said the Police Department continues to fine-tune the approach to crime fighting, to make better use of resources, make closer contact with neighborhoods, run more undercover investigations, and put more cops on the street.
However, he rejected talk of “community policing” as simplistic and said that the response has to be more complex.
Last week saw another high-profile murder when the fire chief’s son, Darcel Rivers, 35, of Rhode Island, was shot once in the back of the head during a robbery at 3:45 a.m. Thursday near Fulton Avenue (see briefs).
The department’s task, Shea said, is to understand whether crime is declining or changing its nature. He consults regularly with other North Jersey city departments to spot trends and changes, and swap notes on investigative techniques. But he said the larger job is to better understand police-community dynamics in an era when law enforcement and the people they are trying to serve, especially in minority neighborhoods, find themselves in confrontation more than cooperation.
The number of murders in Jersey City rose from 12 in 2012 to 20 in 2013, and then to 24 in 2014, doubling in the past two years. While the number of murders this year is so far less than during the previous two years at the same time, crime tends to peak in the summer months.
The only other area of increase from 2013 to 2014 was rape, which rose from 31 to 32, and theft of trucks, which rose from 25 to 36.
Robberies of various kinds fell from 1,733 to 1,654, assaults with weapons, from 883 to 702, and simple assaults (with hands, fists or feet) from 1,733 to 1,654.
Shea said foot patrols are the least effective way of policing.
Not good enough
Shea said those statistics may be good, but each crime affects people involved.
“We’re very happy the numbers are going down,” he said. “But each number has a victim.”
Each year, cities throughout the nation report the year’s crime statistics as requested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Some experts have become critical of these reports because they often do not reflect the changing nature of crime in America.
During an interview, Shea seemed to agree with this assessment about the statistics. He also responded to recent public comments suggesting increased crime in certain parts of the city.
“Mayor [Steven] Fulop and I are happy about the decline in crime, but we’re not overconfident,” Shea said. “We compile the numbers for the FBI. But this is not the last word. We need to know if crime is declining or is it shifting.”
By shifting, Shea means changes in criminal methods, or whether crime is moving to other neighborhoods in the city.
“We are constantly consulting with Newark, Paterson, New York City to see what these patterns are,” he said.
Criminals might be shifting to offenses more difficult to address, he said, like credit card fraud. That’s a crime that doesn’t appear in the FBI stats but still leaves people victimized. These become more or less invisible crimes.
Shea said Jersey City has launched an initiative to share information with New York, Connecticut and law enforcement elsewhere in New Jersey. This allows Jersey City to know if crime is actually reducing or only moving across borders.
A change from visible ‘sweeps’
Residents have been speaking up in the public comment portion of City Council meetings about the increase in gun violence and other quality-of-life issues, especially near Martin Luther King Drive. Some residents have called for more foot patrols in heavy crime areas and the establishment of a community policing in these neighborhoods.
“This would be a good idea if we had the manpower and we could get a consensus of what people mean by community policing,” Shea said.
He also said law enforcement has entered a new era, referring to the community protests after police shootings in Staten Island, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.
Shea said the previous police chief believed in a very visible police presence and sweeps of police squads into areas of high crime. While people see the police, Shea said, it also has a negative impact in communities that see themselves as targets.
“Under Police Chief [Phillip] Zacche we have moved in a different direction,” Shea said. “When we look at the numbers we see that there are couple of areas that have persistent crime.”
“Chief Zacche has a lot of experience in narcotics, street crime and investigations,” Shea said. “While sweeps still have value, they also have consequences. We are emphasizing investigations over sweeps.”
This means that undercover police and others, rather than neighbors, will identify suspected perpetrators.
“This is a more targeted approach that uses a lot more investigation and plain-clothes officers to identify people rather than just hot spots,” Shea said.
Although some members of the public perceive that shootings on are the rise, Shea said they have been less frequent over the last couple of years. There were 91 reported in 2012, 75 in 2013, and this year, the numbers appear to be the same as 2013.
“But we are going into the summer and that’s when people are on the street,” he said.
He said a change of strategy when police are less visible in the community might lead to the misperception that police are not there.
“Sweeps were very visible,” Shea said. But sweeps often had the potential to lead to unintended confrontations with people in these neighborhoods, and a rise in complaints about police.
It’s something of a Catch 22: the police get criticized for not having a presence, but lose the element of secrecy if the public knows they’re working undercover.
The change from sweeps to undercover has reduced complaints against the Police Department, he said.
What do you mean by community policing?
While some have asked for more community policing, Shea said, no one can agree completely on what that means.
“There are about 20 different definitions,” he said.
Some residents have asked for more foot patrols. Jersey City instituted a park and walk program last summer and officers walked in various neighborhoods. But Shea said foot patrols are the least effective way of policing.
“People remember the good old days when cops walked the streets?” he said. “They walked because cars were rare.”
He also said there is a misperception that walking patrols reduces crime.
“When we had walking patrols, crime was on the rise,” he said. “The golden age of foot patrols was in the 1960s and 1970s when crime kept getting worse.”
But Shea agreed that cops should get to know the neighborhood and people in those neighborhoods should get to know the police.
“We want our officers to know their beat in and out,” Shea said. “They need to know when a store should be open and who should not be hanging out on a corner.”
For this reason, new police officers are assigned for longer durations in neighborhoods.
Then there are the quality-of-life situations cops constantly confront. It could be something as simple as people barbecuing out on a sidewalk.
“This may not be an issue for the police,” he said. “First of all, everybody has to agree that it’s wrong. Secondly, it may not be a criminal matter. But once the police step into it, it goes from being a minor issue to a major one. It’s like when someone is selling cigarettes. Once a police officer gets involved, it stops being a minor offense. The dynamic changes. We are required to follow certain rules. For the most part, these are issues that must be decided by the broader society, not the police.”
Low numbers of police have prevented the department from doing a number of things, he said. While the current administration has been putting more people through police academy, this was offset by large numbers of retiring officers.
This changes with the newest recruits. The department has sworn in 34 new officers and only five officers will retire this year.
“In the past we would graduate 30 and have 29 retired” Shea said.
One problem has been the loss of a police academy in Jersey City.
“The previous administration [in Jersey City] closed the police academy, so we’ve had to find placement in academies in other parts of the state,” Shea said. This often made Jersey City cadets wait, since county academies give seating priority to their own.
Jersey City is hoping to place another 20 cadets in the fall, 40 more by the end of the year, and possibly another 40 in the beginning of next year.
Meanwhile, the department has tried to get more cops on the streets by giving a lot of desk duty to civilians.
“Officers from my office and the police chief’s have been replaced with civilians,” Shea said. “But that will only go so far. Sooner or later that well will run dry.”
The department has also disbanded the motorcycle squad to provide more patrol officers.
The department currently has about 799 officers. Shea said Newark, a similarly sized city, has 1,200.
“I’ll be happier if we nudging 900 rather than 800,” he said.
Shea said he also wants to recruit more officers from local residents, in particular, increase the number of African Americans on the force. He said he’s adopted the U.S. Marines recruiting strategy by locating a recruiting station in an African American neighborhood.
“It’s a good career where you can eventually earn $100,000 a year,” he said.
Meanwhile, Jersey City waits for the state to allow for new testing. Candidates then take a test and get on a list.
“There was a test just after this administration took over,” Shea said. “But we didn’t have enough time to fully prepare for it. The state allows people a year to get ready for the test. When the next one takes place, we’ll spend a year helping people get ready to take it.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.