Murder of Police Officer Darkens Jersey City’s Upbeat Outlook

By David Cruz

The scene was almost dream-like. A line of police cruisers following — in silence — as the ambulance carrying the body of 23-year-old rookie cop Melvin Santiago left the medical center, killed in an ambush by a man police say was ready to kill cops and to die in the process.

“It was a surreal moment that I hope that I never have to go through again in my entire life,” said Mayor Steve Fulop. “When the mother saw Melvin and kept repeating his badge number and that it’s not possible, that there was some mistake, I couldn’t help myself. I was crying the same way.”

For a mayor who has seen mostly positive headlines in his first year in office, the news of the death of Officer Santiago stung like a punch in the face. For a city where many long-time residents feel like the renaissance downtown has failed to reach them, the news was no surprise. Outside the convenience store where the shooting occurred, it was almost business as usual, customers coming and going, under the watchful eye of cop cars seemingly at every corner today.

Omar Torres and his wife didn’t know Officer Santiago personally but they felt compelled to pay their respects at the memorial on Communipaw Avenue. Torres lives nearby and says not much has changed here over the years.

“This neighborhood is fire. It’s been fire since I moved out here, day one,” he said. “I don’t let my kids come out and play. We got no protection out here. Nobody cares for nobody. And that’s the truth.”

Seventeen-year-old Pablo Villa knows the deal about living near Communipaw and Kennedy Boulevard. When the sun goes down, he’s inside the house.

“By 9 o’clock I’m in the house,” he said. “I’m not out here. It’s dangerous out here. I don’t trust nobody out here. For real.”

With 15 murders this year, Jersey City is slightly ahead of last year’s pace, but behind other cities of comparable size. Still, the west precinct, where this week’s murder occurred, is far and away the most violent stretch of the city, and officials, for all their statistical rationalizing, seem at a loss about how to actually stem the tide.

“Here’s a persistent area where, despite our best efforts, the citizens are still subject to a higher crime level than in other areas of the city, so we’re going to have to try something new,” said Police Director Jim Shea.

Assemblyman Charles Mainor worked these streets as a cop for 25 years, retiring last year. Nowadays he heads up the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee.

“In all honesty there’s really no answer that I would know of,” he admitted. “That’s the million dollar question. I believe what we have to do now is — and what my office is trying to do now — is change the mentality of the people. We have to give them something to live for.”

There has been an increased police presence in this neighborhood all day. In fact, the west district is just a few blocks from here. We asked residents walking through here today if that made them feel any safer. Their answer was “no.”

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