After nearly a year of demanding an increased police presence on the streets, Jersey City residents will finally be getting the foot patrols they’ve requested. Last Friday, 22 new officers were sworn in to the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD), several of whom will soon hit the streets on foot.
This will no doubt come as welcome news to residents who staged protests against crime and public safety in the city following a string of high profile incidents last December and the early part of this year. Since then, crime has been a top concern of residents and last winter led to calls for increased foot patrols and other changes within the JCPD.
Mayor Jerramiah Healy and Jersey City Police Chief Tom Comey announced last week that police foot patrols will be increased or added in areas of the city with high rates of crime.
Fifteen of the new officers who were sworn in were hired with the help of a $1.85 million Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The remaining seven officers are being paid for through the municipal budget.
“Public safety has always been mission number one for this administration,” Healy said last week in a prepared statement. “We will continue to seek funding to hire more officers so thereby adding to our police presence throughout the city.”
Crime and public safety are likely to be big issues in the upcoming May 2013 mayoral race.
‘A sense of security’
At present, there are a handful of JCPD officers who walk their beats, according to Chief Comey.
“We’ve always tried to maintain some level of foot patrols around schools, commercial areas, senior areas, and transportation areas, because of the large volumes of people in the those areas,” Comey noted. “It gives people a sense of security.”
From about 1990 until the early 2000s, Comey said the city also had a few bicycle patrols in addition to cops walking the beat.
But such patrols are not prevalent in residential areas where small mom and pop shops also exist.
Over the past several months, Chief Comey has said he believes in the merits of foot patrols, but that he lacked the necessary personnel to add more foot patrol details.
“Foot patrols are designed to build relationships between the police and the community,” said Comey. “The [police force] numbers are not where I’d like for them to be, but we’re getting there.”
With the addition of the 22 new officers, the JCPD currently has 806 officers. Comey said he’d like the department to have about 875 to 925 officers, although he knows getting the police force up to that number is difficult given the economic climate.
“We will continue to seek funding to hire more officers so thereby adding to our police presence throughout the city,” Healy said last week.
The COPS grant was obtained through a letter-writing campaign that was initiated earlier this year by resident and activist Esther Wintner.
The Justice Department awards this grant to police departments that have experienced layoffs and allows those departments to re-hire officers. For the past two years, Jersey City applied for, but did not receive, a COPS grant because the department had not had any police layoffs.
“I’m glad to hear of the hiring of the new police officers, who will be used for foot patrol, as communities have asked for,” said Wintner. “Hopefully, it will help residents to remain safer.”
Healy’s critics said they welcome the foot patrol announcement, but find the timing of it to be politically motivated.
“It was only six months ago that the administration told us that there weren’t enough police officers in the department to have foot patrols,” said At-large City Councilman Rolando Lavarro Jr. “What’s changed? The mayor is in the middle of a tough re-election campaign and he’s desperate to show he’s doing something about escalating crime in this city.”
Lavarro argues that the new officers who were recently hired offset several recent retirements within the JCPD and that overall personnel numbers within the department remain relatively unchanged.
Lavarro has been calling for increased foot patrols since February and tried to introduce an ordinance this past summer that called for an independent operational study to determine the most efficient way to deploy JCPD personnel. Lavarro withdrew the resolution after city attorney William Matsikoudis said his proposal exceeded the City Council’s authority. Lavarro sponsored a revised version of this measure in October, but the City Council rejected it by a vote of 5 to 4 on the grounds raised previously by Matsikoudis.
Lavarro is a political ally of City Councilman Steven Fulop, Healy’s mayoral challenger next year, and is running on the Team Fulop slate.
According to several political polls taken in recent months, crime and public safety are likely to be big issues in the upcoming May 2013 mayoral race. In a June poll conducted by Rex Marketing, 300 likely voters in Jersey City were asked to identify the city’s most pressing issue. In this poll crime was listed as the top issue and it outranked the economy and taxes as residents’ chief concern. Thus, both mayoral campaigns are eager to capitalize on this issue.
The Healy camp is likely to argue that, overall, crime is down citywide in Jersey City. Team Fulop will probably argue that the administration has not done enough to increase public safety in the city’s high crime neighborhoods, where crime has actually gone up slightly.
A spokesman for the Healy campaign last week denied that the newly announced foot patrols are politically motivated.
“While other cities have been laying off police officers in tough economic times, Jersey City is adding more police to the beat, because Mayor Healy is looking out for the families and small businesses who call this city he loves home,” said campaign spokesman Joshua Henne.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.