Strategies for Safety at the Core of State of the City Address

After much pomp and circumstance, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop delivered his third annual State of the City address from behind a lectern in City Council’s chambers. Depending on perspective, Fulop’s presentation focused largely on either crime or safety.

After a lengthy set of introductions of Jersey City Councilmembers and other local dignitaries by Council President Rolando Lavarro, the chambers were filled with the sounds of students, first reciting the pledge of allegiance, and then singing both the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America. Rabbi Debra Hachen from Temple Beth El followed the music by leading the room in a prayer for both the city and the mayor himself.

But perhaps the most inspiring part of the ceremonies prior to the mayor’s talk (apart from 12 year old Maurice Mabutas’s rendition of the national anthem, which might have received the biggest applause of the night) was the video montage, which demonstrated many of the reasons to choose Jersey City. In it, we saw Citi bikes, police officers on foot, Shepard Fairey painting the Wave mural, the Light Rail, shovels digging into fresh dirt, kids laughing, buildings and scaffolding, the words “Living Wage” and a local woman who finishes the film telling us she feels “Much safer. Much, much safer.”

The crowd loved it. Fulop walked out to a standing ovation.

Maurice Mabutas singing the national anthem, State of the City Address, March 16, 2016. Photo credit Tracey Luz

Maurice Mabutas singing the national anthem, State of the City Address, March 16, 2016. Photo credit Tracey Luz

It was Fulop’s third state of the city address, and he began it by thanking the council, the court, clergy, his administration, and “most importantly the residents of Jersey City.” He then mentioned the divisive climate of national politics at the moment, and used it as a way to unify a sometimes segmented city. To Fulop, Jersey City “doesn’t start and end at the waterfront” and his leadership reflects that. “Regardless of ethnicity, gender, or income,” he reminds us that we are all here on these grounds where thousands of immigrants first met, and that our progress as a city reflects that.

He goes on to describe Jersey City’s significant growth and changes over the course of the past year, specifically mentioning his initiative to provide transgender-related health care coverage to municipal employees, the forthcoming control of the Jersey City Public School District to the city from the state (for the first time in 27 years), and the consolidation of the Jersey City Incinerator Authority and the Department of Public Works, which saves “millions of taxpayer dollars.”

Addressing the growth of Jersey City’s economy, Fulop calls it “unparalleled” and “nothing short of remarkable.” Unemployment is at a 25 year low, and Jersey City is home to 3200 small businesses. Fulop discusses the 7000 residential units that are under construction, which he calls “a record for Jersey City.” And even more important, says Fulop, are the veteran housing units, “a project close to my heart” and the affordable housing units that are being built as a part of the overall growth of the city. Jersey City has built “as many [affordable housing units] throughout the city in the past two years as in the past eight combined.”

Jersey City Fire and Police Brass, State of the City Address, March 16, 2016. Photo credit Tracey Luz

Jersey City Fire and Police Brass, State of the City Address, March 16, 2016. Photo credit Tracey Luz

What’s essential, posits Fulop, is the foundation of safety. He refers to safety as the “nucleus of our growth,” and with passion, talks about how personally he takes it when acts of violence take lives in our city. “Without safe streets, we can’t grow. What good are new jobs if people don’t feel safe,” he asks.

And this foundation is the crux of his leadership. He says he has taken “aggressive steps” and that Jersey City is officially the safest urban area in New Jersey, but he does acknowledge that “we have work to do.”

Even though statistically there are decreases in violent crimes, assaults, robberies, burglaries, and shootings, as well as the recovery of more guns in the history of the city, Fulop refers to Mark Twain’s infamous quote “There are three kinds of lies. Lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

The crowd laughs and Fulop brings us into the “sober realities of gun violence in the city.”

“Clearly there is a breakdown when so many young people have guns. Every single urban mayor in America knows about this.” Fulop says that while the statistics might show decline, he ultimately relies on feedback he receives from residents he encounters on his daily walks around the city.

“A change in perception can’t be measured, but it exists. We are continuing to make progress. We are winning the fight on crime here in Jersey City.”

Recruits from the Jersey City police and fire departments were honored and received a special recognition, State of the City Address, March 16, 2016. Photo credit Tracey Luz

Recruits from the Jersey City police and fire departments were honored and received a special recognition, State of the City Address, March 16, 2016. Photo credit Tracey Luz

The “causes of criminal behavior are complicated,” Fulop says, but “we are making progress.” Here’s how:

1. Jersey City has made information public and easy to access through the Open Data Portal. This transparency in data allows an increase in open dialogue where all the facts are known to all parties.

2. Structural changes have been made, and will continue to be made, to personnel. New police officers who reflect the racial diversity of the communities that they serve have been actively recruited, hired and promoted. “70% of officers hired and promoted have been minorities… Jersey City is now considered a national model for police diversity.” Fulop hopes to have a police force of 900 police officers by the end of his first term.

3. The infrastructure has and will continue to improve. Fulop was “proud to open the new Melvin Santiago police station, the first since 1954.” In addition, “on the infrastructure front, the new police headquarters will be located within public housing. This is an historic and unprecedented move.” Further, in a nod to Councilman Boggiano’s vision, Fulop talks about a “reopening of the Jersey City Police Academy…We intend to make this a reality.”

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka among the attendees, State of the City Address, March 16, 2016. Photo credit Tracey Luz

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka among the attendees, State of the City Address, March 16, 2016. Photo credit Tracey Luz

These three steps toward safer streets are strengthened by Jersey City’s “great relationship with the new Hudson County Prosecutor Esther Suarez. Together, we will work toward “stiffen[ing] penalties for most violent criminals.” Finally, in an effort to build trust between residents and the police, Fulop says he is “working to equip police officers with body cameras” that will provide video and audio.

It’s a “holistic approach to safety,” he says. He sees connections between lowering the unemployment rate, funding entrepreneurs, and creating recreation and professional development opportunities for the city’s youth.

“Community engagement is key. Public safety is a group effort,” says Fulop.

While crime was the at the focal point of this year’s address, what would you have asked the mayor if you had an opportunity? Tell us in the comments section below.

Read the full text of Mayor Fulop’s State of the City Address here. Watch the city’s video of the State of the City Address below.

Photo credit Tracey Luz

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Mel Kozakiewicz

is a writer, performer, and professor. She lives in the Heights section of Jersey City and she is a former editor for Jersey City Independent.