In a rare departure from standard practice, the New Jersey State Assembly Committee on Law and Public Safety held a hearing in Jersey City on April 25 and got an earful from fire and law enforcement officials about the need for more state funding.
Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, Police Chief Tom Comey, and Fire Chief Darren Rivers were among those who testified at length before the committee, which typically meets in Trenton. The men expressed frustration that Jersey City gets bypassed for state funding that would enable the city to hire more police and firefighters.
“Last year, due to negotiations between the city and our police union, we were able to avoid layoffs in our police department,” Healy told the committee. “But state aid goes to those cities and departments that have higher crime rates than we do and that have had layoffs. We’ve been penalized for our success.”
Chief Rivers called the Jersey City Fire Department ‘equipment rich, but manpower poor.’
Chief Comey and Chief Rivers echoed many of Healy’s comments.
“Cities that have laid off cops – Camden, Newark – are getting the first bite at the apple [when it comes to state aid for public safety personnel],” Comey told the committee.
The Jersey City Police Department currently has about 802 members. Several officers who are eligible for retirement, Comey testified before the committee, have either already filed their paperwork for retirement or have said they planned to do so soon. Comey said it is possible the Jersey City police force could dip below 800 officers before the end of May. Approximately 185 Jersey City police officers are eligible to retire by July 2013.
“There comes a time when we have to say smaller doesn’t mean better,” he said.
Chief Rivers told the committee that cuts to fire departments throughout the region have strained firefighting efforts and mutual aid agreements among departments in Northern New Jersey.
Under mutual aid agreements municipal fire companies throughout a geographic region agree to assist one another should any one municipality have a major situation that requires additional personnel. Out-of-town fire departments could be asked to do anything from search and rescue at a fire scene to cover a second fire emergency that comes up. Rivers said fire departments throughout Northern New Jersey have been stretched so thin that mutual aid is requested more frequently than it was in the past.
Recalling the February fire that took place in Jersey City on Fairmont and Monticello avenues, Rivers said the Jersey City Fire Department called in the Hoboken Fire Department for mutual aid. The Hoboken firefighters, however, had to pull out when that city had a major fire of its own. Jersey City then called for mutual aid from the Newark Fire Department to help with the Fairmont/Monticello incident.
In response to a question from committee member Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (31st Dist.-Bayonne) Rivers said the Jersey City Fire Department had approximately 150 fires in 2011 that required mutual aid.
Rivers called his department “equipment rich, but manpower poor.”
Both the Jersey City Fire Department and the Jersey City Police Department have in recent years received federal grants to purchase equipment. Healy, Comey, and Rivers said this equipment is almost meaningless without the personnel needed to operate it.
But even equipment issues can hinder public safety when fire departments are forced to rely on mutual aid on a regular basis, firefighters from other municipalities told the committee. Firefighters in Essex and Union counties said they have been called in to provide mutual aid in Jersey City only to discover that some of their hoses and other equipment aren’t compatible with equipment used locally.
Crime and public safety have been front burner issues for local residents since the beginning of the year when a spate of crimes and two major fires took place in the city. Two residents from Jersey City were given an opportunity to address the committee and were the only non-officials given an opportunity to do so.
After listing the many reasons why Jersey City needs more resources than suburban towns – including its close proximity to New York City and an acknowledged gang problem – Jersey City resident and activist Esther Wintner made three requests of the committee:
“First, [I request] the support of all committee members in assisting to attain the United States Department of Justice COPS Grant for the City of Jersey City’s 2012 fiscal year. For the past two years, our police department has applied for this grant which would allow for the hiring of 40 police officers paid for three years. Our police department was denied on both occasions because there had been no police layoffs…
“I request, as a line item appropriation, dedicated solely to the Jersey City Police Department for fiscal year 2012 in the amount of $1 million, and a commitment for the same amount [2013 and 2014], to fund manpower and cameras. This lifeline would allow the administration to focus on strategically setting a course for economic expansion which would benefit not only our city, but the State as a whole.
“Lastly, I invite you to join us in a tour of our city so you can understand better the challenges we face.”
Police Chief Comey has stated that he would like to hire as many as 60 new police officers, but lacks the resources to do so. Wintner last month launched a letter writing campaign to New Jersey Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) to get federal funding from the U.S. Justice Department for this purpose.
The state Assembly Committee on Law and Public Safety includes three legislators from Hudson County: O’Donnell, Sean Connors (33rd Dist.-Jersey City), and chairman Charles Mainor (31st Dist.-Jersey City).
Healy announces fourth meeting on crime
The same day the Assembly committee came to Jersey City, Mayor Healy announced that he will host the fourth in a series of town hall meetings on crime and public safety on Mon., April 30 at the Christa McAuliffe School (P.S. 28), at 167 Hancock Ave. The town hall meeting will begin at 6 p.m.
In response to concerns about crime Healy in February promised to hold four public meetings on public safety issues throughout the city. The April 30 meeting is the fourth such gathering the city has planned.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.