“In the midst of darkness, there is hope,” said a sign in front of a church on Ocean Avenue in Jersey City. But one week after the ambush and murder of rookie Police Officer Melvin Santiago, hope is not a word many people are using.
The police and the residents of the neighborhood where Santiago and his assailant died on July 13 are concerned about a possible a war between police and street gangs like the Bloods who have members in Jersey City. In the two weeks before Santiago’s death, the fatal police shootings of two African-American men had aroused fear and anger. Some believe this might have motivated Lawrence Campbell, who shot Santiago to death at a Walgreens drug store in the middle of the night. Apparently, just before that, he had told someone that he was going to be famous.
Two more shootings last week since Santiago’s death have added to the tension.
Police officers on patrol near Ege Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive on July 14 were allegedly attacked by a young African American male who disobeyed their orders to drop two six-foot long fence posts. He allegedly rammed a fence post through the window of a police car, injuring one of the officers inside, and is in critical condition after being shot by police.
Early in the week, Mayor Steven Fulop ordered city workers to remove a neighborhood memorial to Campbell, the man who was fatally shot after killing Santiago. The memorial, then its removal, heightened tensions on both sides.
“I understand that it might be perceived as an issue of free speech,” Fulop said later. “But in light of what the widow said, I believe it was the right thing to do.”
Some police believe that the Bloods – who are prominent in this part of the city – were targeting police, although idea that was played down by Public Safety Director James Shea.
“It’s going to be a bloody summer if we don’t stop doing what we’re doing.” – Laverne Washington, Greenville activist
But Ocean Avenue is tense even during normal times. Greenville residents living only two blocks east or west of it tend to avoid that street.
Santiago was assassinated
At 4:09 a.m. on July 13, Santiago and another young cop responded to a report of an armed robbery at the Walgreens at the corner of Communipaw Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard.
It was not an armed robbery, police later learned, but an ambush.
Campbell, one of three men wanted by police for another murder, had entered the store with a knife. He took a security guard’s gun, and then sat down to wait for the police to arrive, telling those in the store to watch their TV sets because he was going to be famous.
“The first responding officers were Officers Santiago and Martinez, who responded from Bergen and Lexington,” said Mayor Fulop said. ”[Campbell] fired at the marked police car, striking officer Santiago – who was still inside the vehicle – in the head. Officer Melvin Santiago was pronounced dead shortly after at the Jersey City Medical Center.”
Additional responding officers, according to the release, returned fire at Campbell, who was pronounced dead at the scene.
“It is a tragic situation when any officer is killed in the line of duty,” Fulop said. “Melvin was an officer who represented everything one would want to see in a police officer.”
A good cop gunned down
This was the first time in nearly five years that a Jersey City cop was killed in the line of duty. A makeshift memorial went up near the Walgreens within hours.
Fulop praised Santiago as a young cop who had deliberately chosen to work one of the most difficult districts in the city. Santiago was a Jersey City native who graduated from Create Charter High School before seeking a degree in Criminal Justice at Hudson County Community College. Hired a year ago, he started duty in December.
“This was an assassination,” one police officer elsewhere in Hudson County said. “You can believe that every cop is now going to shoot first and ask questions later.”
Fulop admitted that tension existed after the shooting.
“There is a lot of suspicion and misinformation,” he said. “We have some lessons to learn from all of this.”
While the Southern and Western district are said to have very experienced and extremely competent commanders, according to officials with knowledge of the department makeup, the department is also undergoing a restructuring. Fulop recently had the police chief demoted, leaving a vacuum at the top.
“Shea is a great public safety director, but he came here from outside Jersey City,” said one law enforcement professional. “He really doesn’t know the difference yet between JFK Boulevard and Ocean Avenue.”
But Fulop said Shea has a lot of experience.
“This is someone who worked in the New York Police Department,” Fulop said. “I’m very confident in him.”
Some police said there were mistakes made, including having two relatively inexperienced cops riding in one car, which may explain why the car pulled up in front of the store. “Experienced cops know not to do that,” one cop said, noting that rookie cops are usually assigned to ride with experienced cops to avoid such mistakes.
Fulop said on Friday that there has historically been a conflict between the African-American community and the police. “Some of it isn’t justified, some is,” he said. “But this is not something that is unique to Jersey City; almost every major city has this issue.”
Fulop said the city has invested a lot in the southern portion of the city such as new parks and recreation programs.
“But government can only do so much,” he said. “At some point, the answer has to come from inside the community itself,” he said.
Outrage over the memorial to the killer
The neighborhood memorial that went up to the officer’s killer sparked outrage around the country when it was highlighted in newspapers like the New York Post. The scene included candles, empty liquor bottles, t-shirts, and numerous comments. The heads of the police unions issued a statement condemning the memorial. Fulop called it “disgusting” and ordered it removed.
Campbell’s distraught widow then added fuel to the fire when she was quoted in the press as saying her husband should have killed more cops. She later recanted and offered her sympathy to the slain cop’s family, but community people say the exchange has only added to the tension along Ocean Avenue.
“Most people down there didn’t approve of the memorial or what she said,” said another Jersey cop who patrols the beat. “Nobody wants this to get out of hand.”
But community activists see a problem.
“It’s been a long hot summer in the city of Jersey City,” said Lavern Washington, a well-known community activist in the Greenville section. “We’ve got to do better. We lost a good cop and we’re losing people in the street. A 5-year-old baby got shot. This is horrible; this is disgusting. We need to sit with people and come together with the community. But it’s like dead air”
Last summer also saw a sudden spike in Jersey City, with six murders in as many weeks. Crime had declined early this calendar year, but was on the rise again as summer came.
Washington added, “I go on the streets and I talk to young women and men on the street corner. They don’t want to be out there. I go to a union meeting workshop. We need jobs. But a lot of our people are uneducated, they don’t have a high school diploma, they don’t have a GED. They can’t get those union jobs. Some people don’t want to get their GED because they got to go to school with kids. We need to do something for adults. It’s going to be a bloody summer if we don’t stop doing what we’re doing, and do it right.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saying Farewell to Santiago
They came from everywhere to pay their respects to Melvin Santiago, the police officer gunned down on July 13 while responding to a report of an armed robbery. From near and far, people gathered near Journal Square to watch as an army of police and public safety officials accompanied Santiago on his final road.
Steve Sulligan, a retired state trooper from South Carolina, heard about the death on the news and flew up to bear witness.
“I’m a Jersey boy, although I don’t sound like it now,” he said with a Southern drawl. “I grew up in Sayreville. I came because I had to pay my respects. This could have been any one of us. I don’t know anyone here, but we’re [public safety people] part of one big family.”
Jersey City Police Director James Shea called Santiago a determined and bright cop, someone who impressed people at the academy and on the job. However, he said the West Side District Captain Michael Kelly sat down with Santiago a few weeks ago.
“He was so focused on the job he didn’t seem to be having a good time,” Shea said. “Kelly told him to enjoy the job. The next time he saw him, Santiago smiled at Kelly. He didn’t say anything. He just smiled.”
Santiago was promoted posthumously to detective and awarded a city Medal of Honor. The city and United Way of Hudson County have also established a memorial fund for the family.
“Police Officer Melvin Santiago represented everything one would want to see in a police officer,” said Mayor Steven Fulop. ”He was a shining star in our community, who pursued his dream of a career in law enforcement and was eager to come to work to protect his community. I know the entire city’s thoughts and prayers are with the Santiago family during this difficult time as we mourn together. While nothing can replace the loss of Melvin, this fund will help the family not only in their immediate needs, but in ensuring a positive future for Melvin’s younger brother.”
Tilo Rodriguez came from the other side of town, a resident of 10th Street for more than 40 years; he came to pay his respects. His brother was shot and killed by police on April 23, 1983.
“I was very angry at the time,” he said, noting that he understood why Lawrence Campbell’s widow had lashed out at the police. “You just react. I reacted at the time, too. But you have to let it go. You can’t keep the hate inside of you. Over the years, I’ve made friends with a lot of police officers. My son has police for friends. I say hello to them on the street; they say hello to me. There has to be a point when the rage goes away. I no longer feel the way I did then. I understand how badly the family of the police officer feels, and I came to pay my respects.”
When asked if he ever met the police officer who shot his brother, Rodriguez said, “No, but I knew his mother. But I never said anything to her.”
He said he misses his brother Salvatore. But the years have taken other family members to things like AIDS and cancer, and his mourns them all.
“You can’t keep the anger inside. It’ll just ruin your life,” he said. – By Al Sullivan