When Mayor Steven Fulop announced James Shea as the city’s new public safety director at a press conference last Thursday, City Hall was packed with rank and file members of the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) and Fire Department who wondered what Shea’s appointment will mean for them.
And outside City Hall, in a city where there had been three murders in the past week alone, residents wondered much the same thing. While crime in Jersey City has been a front-burner issue among residents since early last year, a spike in murders and gun-related crimes since Fulop took office on July 1 has once again proven that a change in leadership does not automatically bring change on the streets.
Fulop’s predecessor, Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy – whom Fulop defeated in May – was often criticized for being slow to acknowledge and address the city’s crime problem.
Mayor Fulop, in contrast, campaigned on the promise that his administration would address crime head-on by bringing in new leadership, modernizing the JCPD, and redeploying crime-fighting resources where they are most needed.
Before taking office, Fulop announced in mid-June that he had retained former New York City Police and Fire Commissioner Howard Safir and his firm, Vigilant Resources International, to conduct a search for a new public safety director. Less than a month after that announcement was made, Shea was being introduced at City Hall.
A police spokesperson said the timing of the tragedies in pure coincidence and the JCPD has increased patrols.
While Shea cannot begin his new job until after he has been approved by the City Council, he did shed some light on his approach to crime and public safety last week.
Understanding crime patterns
In an interview with the Reporter last week, Shea said a department must understand the underlying root causes of crime before trying to address or solve it.
“When you have a spike in violence, you have to address it immediately,” Shea said. “I’ve looked over what the Jersey City Police Department has done. And they’ve put together a very effective plan to address that, with additional foot patrols and motorcycle units, to get a presence out there and try and tamp down the immediate violence.”
“You can’t let it end there, though,” He continued. “You have to move forward and try to figure out what are the underlying causes [of violence], without sounding too soft and fuzzy. And I mean, what are the immediate reasons for these shootings. Is it a gang against a gang? Is it a narcotics organization? Is it domestic violence? Without understanding why it’s happening, you’re just doomed to have another incident happen again in a certain amount of time. So, you need a short-term approach to try to stop it because people need to be able to walk the streets safely…We’re going to have to determine exactly what the problems are in each area of the city. They will not be the same in each ward, each district, or even each block sometimes.”
Understanding such crime patterns, Shea noted, is imperative before coming up with solutions to these problems. But he noted that increased foot and vehicle patrol are important to anti-crime measures.
Residents have been calling for increased foot patrols on city streets since the beginning of 2012.
Shea also said he supports the creation of volunteer citizen-led community patrols when such volunteers are “properly trained and properly motivated.”
Ward B City Councilman Khemraj “Chico” Ramchal and Hudson County Freeholder William O’Dea are planning to revive resident-led neighborhood patrol groups similar to ones that existed in Jersey City in the 1980s.
Announcement made during violent week
Shea’s appointment came during an unusually violent week for the city. Between Friday, July 12 and Wednesday, July 17, there were three murders, two of them involving handguns.
This spate of crime started with the shooting death of an 18-year-old who chased down two alleged thieves who had stolen a cell phone from his brother. He was shot and killed by one of the alleged thieves. An 18-year old suspect has been arrested and charged with felony murder.
Then, a partially paralyzed, wheelchair-bound man was shot and killed on Ocean Avenue on Saturday, July 13.
Before the week was over a third man had been stabbed to death. A suspect has been arrested and charged with murder and weapons charges.
A dispute among three men on Montgomery Street on Monday, July 15 also turned violent. One of the men fled and sought cover in a mosque at 530 Montgomery St. as one of the others allegedly fired shots after him. Although no one was injured in this incident, the mosque was filled with about 200 worshipers who were celebrating Ramadan.
A police spokesperson said the timing of the tragedies is pure coincidence and the JCPD has increased patrols in some parts of the city. Still, the close timing of these incidents has residents again calling for more resources to be dedicated to anti-crime measures.
Before taking office, Mayor Fulop announced plans to increase the size of the JCPD, which currently has less than 800 officers, an all-time low for the department. To help boost numbers, Fulop announced plans to increase the size of the current police academy class from 25 recruits to 40. This police academy class will begin this summer.
A second police academy class may be added later this year, the mayor said.
“I think visibility is important,” Fulop said. “I think in the near-term you’ll see more visibility, we’ve started that already. And once [Shea] gets his arms around the Police Department, you’ll probably see the redrawing of some police district lines. You’ll probably see increased manpower in the areas that need it. Historically, manpower has been divided up equally, regardless of need. But that’s going to change. We’ve talked about the importance of community policing, so you will soon see that get underway.”
As an NYPD deputy chief, Shea was responsible for the Youth and Gang Crime Division, focusing on the expansion and enhancement of the division and targeting a reduction in gang violence. Other recent assignments have included commanding some of the toughest areas, working on issues such as robberies, street crime and terrorism.
For two years, Shea served as commanding officer of the NYPD Contingent for the FBI/NYPD Joint Terrorist Task Force, overseeing national security investigations, conducting briefings of threats and investigations up to the White House level, coordinating the planning and deployment for emergency management and high level special events, as well as coordinating personnel from more than 50 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
Shea told the Reporter that he has a “very good” relationship with “all communities” in New York City, including the city’s communities of color.
The NYPD has in recent years sometimes had a strained relationship with New York’s African American and Latino communities. Shea said he does not expect to have that problem in Jersey City.
Although Shea is not currently a resident of Jersey City, he said he plans to move here soon.
During his tenure with the NYPD, Shea served as the commanding officer of the 49th and 47th precincts in the Bronx, leading more than 300 uniformed and civilian personnel and overseeing all law enforcement operations within two communities each with more than 100,000 residents. In the Bronx, Shea designed, developed, and implemented crime control and public safety functions including supervision of operations, investigations, training, budgeting, and quality control, as well as analyzing criminal and demographic trends and indicators for presentation to community groups, elected officials, and the media.
Shea also served as commanding officer of the NYPD’s Citywide Robbery Division and the NYPD Police Academy, and has worked in a supervisory role in Manhattan’s Organized Crime Control Bureau and in the NYPD’s Patrol Services Bureau for 28th, 9th, and 46th precincts.
And what about the Fire Department?
As a deputy chief who has spent his career in the NYPD, Shea acknowledges that he currently knows more about police operations than fire operations. But he said he plans to work closely with the Fire Department so that it can function most efficiently for city residents as well.
“I understand the concern,” said Shea. “But I have deep respect for the work that they do and I plan to work with our Fire Department here in Jersey City to help them meet the needs of the residents. I’m not here to step on their toes. I’m not here to interfere.”
Among the issues facing the Jersey City Fire Department at present is its “mutual aid” obligation to neighboring municipalities. Some neighboring cities have had layoffs within their local fire departments and are now relying on mutual aid assistance from larger municipalities like Jersey City when they have major fires.
The arrangement has stretched Jersey City resources and has put Jersey City firefighters at risk when fighting fires out of town. In March, five Jersey City firefighters were injured while battling a blaze in Harrison. While the injuries were not life-threatening, they were serious enough that the local firefighters union has asked the city to review these mutual aid agreements to make sure Jersey City resources are not jeopardized or spread too thin.
Shea said, “I think every firefighter I know wants to help save lives whenever and wherever they can. It’s in their nature to do that. And I think it’s right for Jersey City to assist our neighbors when they are in need. But, obviously, we have to be judicious and careful with how we deploy or resources and manpower and make sure we have the resources we need here. So, if that is something that needs to be looked at, then we will review how and when we send people out on mutual aid calls.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.