James Shea, Jersey City’s Soon-to-Be Public Safety Director, Talks Shop


James Shea

James Shea didn’t go out looking to become the next public safety director of Jersey City, it just worked out that way. Even in a national search for candidates, some resumes readily stand out.

In Shea’s 22-years with the New York Police Department, his responsibilities included serving as a deputy chief in the NYPD and overseeing the Youth and Gang Crime Division. Prior to that, Shea was the Commanding Officer of the NYPD Contingent for the FBI/NYPD Joint Terrorist Task Force, a role that had him corresponding regularly with Washington DC. A Marine Corps vet (1981-1985), Shea has been in the thick of it.

That, he says, is the reason former New York City Police and Fire Commissioner Howard Safir, whose firm Vigilant Resources International conducted a national search for the position, reached out to Shea, a former subordinate.

“This job means making every effort to ensure the safety of the residents of this city, whether through crime, or fire, or any other threats,” Shea says. “Then taking a look at all of the organizations that serve the people of Jersey City in the public safety realm, and ensuring the mechanisms are in place to help them do their job to the best of their abilities.”

If the resume was right, the timing couldn’t be better – this summer has seen a series of shootings, making July’s homicide rate the worst in years. And for Mayor Steve Fulop, who ran on a “lower-taxes, better public safety, turn-this-city-around” platform, that was a problem.

Perhaps the summer was going to be tough no matter who took office. But it couldn’t have helped that Fulop inherited a police department where a number of key people appeared disinterested in working for him, leaving temporary appointments a short window to assume command.

Critics of Fulop might argue that he alienated some police brass who were close with the previous administration. Indeed, in May of 2012, Fulop took an opportunity to attack former Mayor Jerramiah Healy for trying to give the vacant police director position to Tom Comey. Healy had touted the cost savings of having Comey take on the added responsibilities without additional compensation, but opponents said it would have been bad for morale. Before voting against the mayor’s proposal, former Ward C Councilwoman Nidia Lopez said at the time that she had been receiving “phone calls from officers [saying] that this would destroy the morale of officers. I love Chief Comey, but I have to vote no.”

Still, searching for a director across the country – or even across the river – irked some police brass, who said if a position should exist (not everyone agrees it should), the person should be from Jersey City. “Who is an outsider to come in and tell us what to do?” the message seemed to be from many, including current Ward C Councilman Rich Boggiano, a former police detective.

There’s the fact that of the country’s major cities, New York’s turnaround stands out. There was that army of police officers hired under former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Then there’s the fact that while the nation has only recovered 79% of their jobs, New York has added 303% – and good employment numbers are often pegged to lower crime.

Some of these things will be available for Shea, and some not. There won’t be a mass hiring of police officers, with the city only adding 36 new officers in the next six months (three of those started in July), putting the total at just above 800. That’s about the same amount as was under Healy’s police department during the end of his tenure, when the city saw a record-low homicide rate.

Yet Shea echoed Fulop’s line. “Statistics only mean so much,” he says of boasting Compstat figures. Or as Ward A Councilman Frank Gajewski once put it, the difference between a stabbing and a homicide can be as simple as bad luck. “It doesn’t mean crime is down,” he said in the past.

And in fact, crime doesn’t appear to be down for many residents. On Sunday, August 4, a concerned citizens group held a march against violence, and before that, Fulop’s allies on the Council and Board of Freeholders held a community watch group meeting.

Shea himself will be making the rounds, with the final of three public safety meetings set for Thursday, August 15. Reports from these meetings suggest quality of life remains a clear concern for residents. That has also become his benchmark, he says. “The people will tell you if you’ve done a good job,” he says, not statistics.

Fulop has long insisted a commitment to “community policing” is needed, rather than simply adding more officers. He’s also had acting-Police Chief Joseph Connors look over the department prior to Shea starting his job with Jersey City. Under-utilized resources were discovered in the police department, and corrected, said Connors. There were a number of mass arrests in recent days as well. But it remains to be seen whether the worst of the summer crime is behind the city.

Then there is the difficulty of putting into practice abstract policing terminology. As Shea says, “Community policing means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.” Instead of defining it, the soon-to-be public safety director said it was better to put the question in different terms: how well does the police department know the community, and how well does the community know the department? “Both the police department and the community have to work together,” he says. “If the community doesn’t trust the police, they’ll be reluctant to cooperate.” That might mean more foot patrols, as previously promised during the mayoral campaign, but until he officially begins, Shea said he couldn’t speak to specifics.

Shea was equally disinterested in defining “stop and frisk,” the controversial police tactic that he claims doesn’t exist as people describe it. “Like community policing, it’s an ill-defined term,” he says, noting it’s the “right” of any police officer to “stop someone and investigate potential criminal activity taking place if they have reasonable suspicion.”

“Stopping people to deter future behavior is not only bad policing because you’re not determining who is committing crimes, it’s illegal,” he says.

Yet numerous critics say stop-and-frisk is, in fact, a real thing, and argue for all of its other alleged faults, it’s not even particularly successful.

As it turns out, the New York Times just reported that a judge ruled stop-and-frisk has violated peoples’ rights, though the news broke Monday morning and as of the writing of this post no details were available.

“Any aspect of policing can be abused,” Shea knows. “We stop that by having supervisory accountability.” That includes watching for officers who “don’t understand the rules.” “When there’s a problem in a police department, it’s the supervisors who should look in the mirror first,” he insists.

Shea’s appointment won’t go through until the end of August, when the Council will vote on the measure — and with seven consistent allies on the Council, it’s likely a foregone conclusion. With that approval, the consolidation of the police force with the fire department will move forward – a plan not everyone in the city is a fan of. In fact, Boggiano has argued that this plan has failed in the past, to which Fulop responded that just because something didn’t work in the past doesn’t mean it can’t work now.

“Concern is natural,” says Shea. “Traditionally, both departments have been separate and faced different missions, but we’ve seen over the last 10 years that those missions aren’t as separate as they used to be. Police and fire work together everyday at [some] level. They work accidents together, they direct traffic around a fire.”

That overlap remains just a part of each departments’ responsibilities, he acknowledges, so in a more practical sense the idea is finding efficiencies. “My job is ensuring that when they work together everyday, that we, at the executive or management level, have put the mechanisms in place to help them do their jobs to the best of their ability.”

Though he’s never worked in the fire department, Shea says he’s worked with 80 different agencies at both the national and international level.

“You can learn what they do and who are the experts and how to work with them,” he says of his management style. The operational chain of command remains the same in the fire department, which he says “does an excellent job.”

For his part, Shea says he hopes to bring a “fresh set of eyes to tweak things, possibly do things differently.” Ultimately, he says, it’s the community that determines how well a job he’s doing. That, he says, is who he will have to answer to.

Photo: Jennifer Morrill

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.