JERSEY CITY - Is Jersey City Police Chief Thomas Comey the first casualty of the 2013 mayoral election? That's one of the questions being debated by some residents a day after the City Council voted 5-4 not to make Comey the permanent police director.
Comey has been called "a very good coach, a good leader" by Police Officers Benevolent Association President Jerry DeCicco. He helped renegotiate a labor contract that saved jobs and money in 2011. When the community demanded to meet with him about crime in the city, he facilitated four town hall-style meetings around town.
But five City Council members still said this wasn't enough to make him the permanent police director.
After the city's longtime police director, Sam Jefferson, retired in February, Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy made Comey the acting police director.
Since then, Comey has filled both the role of police chief and police director. The move to combine the police chief and police director positions was designed to save $200,000 in salary and benefit expenses. A vote by the City Council was needed to give Comey the safety directorship permanently. A majority of the council voted against the move, however, with allies of Councilman Steven Fulop leading the charge against Comey.
Noting that Comey is not a resident of Jersey City, Fulop said, "I think residency for leadership is important. It sends a message to the rank and file members that residency should be important to them as well. Patrolling the city for 30 years is a great thing. But at the end of the day if there's a murder somewhere in the city and you're 45 miles away, you're still 45 miles away."
Councilman David Donnelly voted against making Comey the police director, citing "low morale" on the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD).
"It's important that the police chief report to the police director," said At-Large Councilman Rolando Lavarro Jr.
Earlier this week, Fulop - a 2013 mayoral candidate - announced that Donnelly and Lavarro will be running on his political slate. Councilwomen Nidia Lopez and Viola Richardson joined Fulop, Donnelly and Lavarro in voting against confirming Comey as police director.
Politics, or public safety?
But some residents - including a few Fulop supporters - questioned the motivation behind the vote.
"Public safety should not be a campaign issue and the police department should not be politicized," said one angry resident who has often criticized the Healy administration, but who holds Comey in high regard. "This was nothing more than a political vote."
Mayor Healy agreed. In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Healy said, "The five members of the City Council who voted to not confirm Chief Comey as Director of the Police Department have again shown to the electorate that their political motivation trumps good government and savings in excess of $200,000 for the taxpayers. The crime statistics speak for themselves during the time Chief Comey has been in charge of the Police Department, and over the past two months both he and I have been meeting with the public and have been well received. This decision was based purely on politics and does an injustice to the good people of this city."
Another resident who earlier this year pushed the administration to be more proactive about addressing crime in the city was surprised the council denied Comey the police directorship.
"So they didn't give it to him. Wow. I'm really surprised," he said. Later he added, "Speaking for myself, I would have given it to him. I think he stepped up to the plate when we asked him to step up."
Earlier this year, in response to fears and perceptions about crime in the city, residents held a protest demanding that Healy and Comey make public safety a higher priority. In response, Healy decided to hold four town hall-style meetings on crime and public safety at locations throughout the city. Comey facilitated each one and answered hundreds of questions from residents about police staffing issues, funding and budget matters, and other crime-related concerns. At each meeting he brought with him detectives and senior-level personnel so members of the community could meet some of the officers in their districts.
In addition, the administration announced that 13 new officers will soon join the Jersey City Police Department and several officers were promoted to the rank of detective to expedite criminal investigations at crime scenes.
Despite Wednesday's vote, Comey will remain chief of the Police Department. - E. Assata Wright