What Went Wrong in Jersey City?

How did there become such a huge rift between the Jersey City police and the people that are sworn to protect? This didn’t start with the murder of Melvin Santiago. It is something that grows like a cancer over the years.

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As the stunning details emerged in the murder of Jersey City police officer Melvin Santiago, we all suffered a series of outrages on how he was killed and how the community he served reacted to the murder. The appalling reaction by some in that community made all officers stand up and say; What the hell is going on in Jersey City?

The news broke the day after the shooting that the alleged shooter’s friends and family built a street memorial to their beloved husband, father, and friend. That is shocking. But what should be more shocking is the number of people who wrote words of sympathy for the cop killer on those damned t-shirts that were hung on that brick wall. “Thug in peace” and hundreds of other witty eulogies. That’s the biggest statement in this tragedy. These are people that live there, hundreds of them, saying the same thing. We support our beloved cop killer. We don’t like the police.

Now, I can see how Lawrence Campbell’s wife, who was clearly used to controversy with the police, may feel entitled to say things like, “he should’ve taken more police with him.” She’s a grieving widow and can say stupid things like that. But what I can’t understand, is how so many “friends” of poor ol’ dead Lawrence came out of their holes in that neighborhood to sympathize with her. They were actually proud to be recorded by the news signing that t-shirt and forever be famous for their ignorance.

The city leaders, in their infinite wisdom, took the memorial down a day later and the police union applauded the move. But the statement made by that community should have been heard loud and clear. We have a problem here.

Here’s the bigger story. How did there become such a huge rift between the Jersey City police and the people they are sworn to protect? This didn’t start with the murder of Melvin Santiago. It is something that has grown like a cancer over the years.

The murder of Melvin Santiago is strikingly similar to the May 24 murder of an Arizona police officer who was gunned down in his police car after initiating a traffic stop. A thug, hell-bent on killing an officer that night, ambushed and killed Officer Jair Cabrera of the Salt River Tribal Police Department. The reaction of that community was quite different than the Jersey City residents. The outpouring of community support for the officer, his department, and his family was exactly as it should be. There were candlelight vigils, memorials for the murdered officer, and fundraisers to aid his survivors. Missing in Arizona was any support for the cop killers. Nothing, not a word of support for the shooter or his accomplices. Salt River displayed a healthy community response to such a tragedy.

Officer Santiago was buried on July 18 and members of the community joined the sea of blue uniforms grieving for the officer. It was a solemn ceremony, fitting for a line-of-duty death. Not a word was said about the people who memorialized the cop killer, but everyone at the ceremony knew about it and were undoubtedly outraged by it. But what happens after Officer Santiago is laid to rest  when the police department goes back to the business of protecting the community?

In Jersey City, parts of that community are getting exactly what they want from their police. Robert Kennedy once said, “Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.” This is true anywhere.

The neighborhood where Lawrence Campbell is held in such high esteem is getting the type of criminal they want. A cop killer. They should also get the kind of policing they want. Right now, it’s police patrolling in pairs on high alert for the next attack. I doubt there is much community policing going on in that neighborhood.

All of us officers have been raised with “community policing” philosophies and the variety of ways police departments embrace it. It is a proven way for police to partner with the community. Jersey City seems to embrace community policing a lot like many other departments. The chief, Robert Cowan, says it in his welcome message on the agency's Web page. Jersey City PD officers are assigned to community relations and they state their desire to work with the community to solve problems. But what happened to community policing in this neighborhood? Both sides of the equation should be asking that same question. I don’t have enough information on what has happened in that neighborhood in past years to speculate, but the department should pay attention to this community. It has to, if it wants to prevent another officer attack.

That neighborhood is sending a message to its police and the police response should be appropriate. If that means zero-tolerance enforcement like the broken-windows theory of policing then let it happen. If it means reaching out to the community, do that as well. But don’t forget that neighborhood.

Use this tragedy to fix the problem. Remove the criminals from the neighborhood through professional and diligent police work. Then work with the remaining law-abiding citizens to make that place safer for everyone.

In the coming weeks, the officers and residents who care about the safety of that neighborhood should remember what happened to Officer Santiago. They should remember Lawrence Campbell and how he attacked and killed Santiago. More importantly, they should remember the survivors, the people who live in that neighborhood who signed those memorial t-shirts and ignored the murdered police officer. Then, everyone with a stake in the safety of that community should step up and work together to solve their problems.

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