Jersey City officials have a knack for observing the same thing the public sees, but describing something different. We saw it most recently at a May 6, 2020 press conference dismissing eyewitness videos of police violence on Bostwick Avenue. The recordings, which appear to show Jersey City police officers beating two young Black men already on the ground, had sparked immediate and powerful outcry from Jersey City residents, civil rights activists, and faith leaders alarmed by what they saw.
The Bostwick footage is both shaky and disturbing. It features one man curled into a ball, arms shielding his head; a second man lying on the sidewalk beneath an overturned chair; and a Jersey City police officer striking them both with a baton. The steady whip of the weapon is audible, as is one woman pleading, “He’s just a teenager.”
Less than 24 hours later, city officials held a press conference countering there was nothing on Bostwick for Jersey City to see. Mayor Steven Fulop dismissed evidence “where they can doctor and edit videos on social media”. Police Chief Michael Kelly said “the officers acted with great restraint.” Public Safety Director James Shea concluded that, “I don’t see anything that is against those officers’ training or their legal right to defend themselves.” The head of Jersey City’s police officers union claimed the video showed “police lives were at risk”. The Police Department has stated that no more information will be released to the public “as this is an Internal Affairs investigation”.
How can the community trust a subsequent “independent investigation” after the city’s leadership already exonerated the officers? The question answers itself: we can’t. After years of stalled public-record requests, millions of dollars in police misconduct settlement payouts, and broken faith in the department’s commitment to protect every resident equally, we shouldn’t.
Instead, we need a powerful, independent Civilian Complaint Review Board.
Public inquiry into Jersey City police misconduct is consistently met with the official line that police will “take it from here” — usually through internal affairs investigations conducted behind a veil of secrecy that produce no observable justice. Our current civilian “advisory” committee has no power to investigate, prevent, or create consequences for abuse. And no amount of trainings or community-relations campaigns can replace the one democratic value JCPD internal investigations currently lack: transparency.
There are those, including Mayor Fulop, who advise Jersey City to wait to pass a CCRB until Trenton acts. We disagree. By passing the strongest CCRB in the nation, Jersey City will send Trenton a clear message: Pass legislation to authorize our board or demonstrate that all your support for police reform is phony.
Truth breeds trust. We believe in a Jersey City where every police officer is accountable, not merely behind closed doors, but among the communities they serve. We believe a democratic, qualified Civilian Review Board — one with real follow-through and ability to effect departmental change — can build trust far beyond that of an occasional high-five photo or pickup basketball game. And despite police unions’ fight against accountability measures in Newark, we believe Jersey City can lead by example as part of the growing movement urging State legislators to open all police departments to civilian oversight.
When strengthened by already-respected, already-trusted community representatives, and empowered not merely to observe but to change police misconduct, a Civilian Review Board’s word can build that trust between Jersey City’s neighborhoods and Jersey City’s many hard-working cops.
By JAMES SOLOMON, PAMELA JOHNSON, AMOL SINAH, FRANK GILMORE, ASHEENIA JOHNSON and CHRIS GADSDEN
James Solomon is Jersey City’s Ward E councilman. Pamela Johnson is executive director of the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition. Amol Sinah is the ACLU NJ executive director. Frank Gilmore is a community activist in Jersey City. Asheenia Johnson is a Jersey City community activist. Chris Gadsden is a former Ward B councilman.