It was officially advertised by community groups in that neighborhood as a "citywide public safety rally" with the slogan "High Taxes, High Crime. Where's the Protection?"
Various community groups based in the Heights section of the city and nearby sections helped organize the rally to deal with two key issues - the operation of the Jersey City Police Department, and the proposed creation of a Jersey City Civilian Review Board to oversee how police carry out their duties.
However, there was a glaring no-show among the invited guests - Mayor Jerramiah Healy.
It was announced before the meeting began that Healy had opted instead to attend a championship basketball game between Jersey City high school powerhouse St. Anthony and St. Patrick's of Elizabeth (which St. Anthony's lost). Healy received in absentia criticism from various residents about his choice.
Also in attendance included several City Council members, Hudson County Freeholder Jeffrey Dublin, and Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio.Chief on police efforts
Comey said Wednesday night that he "had no problem bearing responsibility" for the problem of crime in the city, and he could address the issue without the mayor being present.
Comey opened the meeting by pointing out that Jersey City, which he sees as the fastest-growing city in the state, has "400 less police officers" than in Newark. Jersey City has 897 police officers currently on the force.
But he said despite that limitation, crime is on the decrease.
"I can tell you outright as a police agency, we are bucking the national trend," said Comey. "We are going down, and perhaps it is perception, in all major elements of crime."
Comey said the police department recovered 32 percent more handguns in 2006 than in 2005. After the meeting, Police Capt. Hugh Donaghue showed statistics put together for district commanders that showed precipitous decreases in domestic burglaries and rape.
Comey also cited his efforts in making the police more proactive and working more closely with the community.
"When I became chief, I said I had to do two things - I had to improve the quality of life and decrease crime, they go hand and hand - and I had to narrow the gap with the community," said Comey. "We have now become throughout this city a major influence in every block association we can get into."
Comey added, "But apparently that message, if you are all here, isn't strong enough." Community wants answers
But that is not always enough. Last year, 47-year old Fidelina Claros was murdered inside the G&P Deli that she owned on the corner of Ferry Street and Webster Avenue in the Heights. That unsolved murder along with other violent incidents across the city played a role in bringing about the rally.
At Wednesday's meeting, several audience members, some of whom represented block associations, were chosen ahead of time by the organizers of the rally to pose questions to the city's police.
Vincent McNamara of the Heights Hope Neighborhood Association inquired as to why there is overtime spent on current police personnel when the money can be spent on hiring new police officers.
Police Director Samuel Jefferson said he would love to see "1,150 cops" like when he joined the police force over 30 years ago. He also encouraged those in attendance to help the police in hiring more officers by contacting state and federal legislators.
"We need some letter writing from all of you people out there that we need more policing so that the tax [rate] won't go up here," said Jefferson.
George Semier, who resides a few blocks from the Abundant Joy Community Church, cited occasions where there were kids in a group hanging out late on his block and he saw various police cars passing by without the cars telling them to disperse.
"We understand that they may have other things to do, but if they are not racing somewhere with sirens on, does it really take that much energy to stop their patrol car, roll down the window, and interact with the community, and say 'Hey what are you guys doing, go home?' " asked Semier.
Comey defended that by saying how a police car passing by kids on Semier's block may be going to a more active crime area of the city, and that the police would have to know from the community "if it is not acceptable" that kids hang out on a specific block.
That soon led to a contentious dialogue between the two men that continued outside the church after the meeting.
Comey also promised Semier he would personally look into the matter of police not being responsive to complaints from Semier's neighborhood.
Rosalyn Browne of the Communipaw Avenue Block Association asked several questions including one about the creation of the civilian review board.
Comey responded, "I would like you to cite me, if you can one instance where [review board] worked... we have found from law enforcement that you are creating another political bureaucracy."
Other issues raised by the chosen speakers pertained to police officers including the chiefs staying in their positions for a sufficient period of time, getting more closed circuit security cameras in the city, the training of police operators, and taking politics out of the police force. Feeling 'disrespected'
Heights resident Ann Marie Castrovinci, a recent homeowner, said she was hoping to see "more resolution" at the meeting as far as whom the community can go to for helping them deal with crime.
"I commend the police in the North District in that they respond immediately to any 911 calls, but there is still concern about walking home at night," said Castrovinci.
Castrovinci said she felt "disrespected" by Healy not showing up.
"There are working people who came to this meeting looking for answers from him, some of whom voted for him," said Castrovinci.
City spokesperson Stan Eason defended the mayor's decision to attend the St. Anthony's basketball game, saying the lead organizer of the rally, Michael Yun, president of the Central Avenue Special Improvement District (S.I.D.), knew well in advance that the mayor would not attend.
The meeting was originally scheduled for Feb. 20 but that was when Mayor Healy held his State of the City Address, so it was rescheduled by the rally's organizers to Wednesday's date.
"This rally was an orchestrated ambush," said Eason. "It was out and out deception and [Yun] knew that the mayor would not be attending."
Eason also scolded Yun for not mentioning during the meeting that there were four members of the Mayor's Action Bureau on hand to address any complaints that would have been pointed toward Healy.
He complained that Yun had an "agenda" to make Healy look bad.
The Jersey City Pride Committee, an organization chaired by Yun and other business owners and residents in the Heights, struck back at Eason's comments in an e-mail.
"After having rescheduled the rally from its original date of Feb. 20, the mayor's office confirmed his attendance to the rally scheduled for March 7," said the e-mail. "Like everyone else in the room, Yun did NOT realize the mayor would be absent until Chief Comey made an announcement five minutes after the meeting was scheduled to start." Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org