By Alonzo Perry Sr. and Laurie Wurm
Often when a tragic act of violence occurs in our nation, we hear the response, “This doesn’t happen here.” Sadly, on Sunday, Jersey City became “here.”
A family is in mourning for the loss of their loved one, shot by a police officer, and we are asking meaningful questions: “How did this happen? How can we prevent this from happening again?”
The state Attorney General’s office is conducting an investigation, and we will wait to learn all the facts of what occurred. Yet, as leaders of Jersey City Together, a group of 35 faith-based and community organizations, we are now wondering whether this tragedy could have been prevented.
We have been pushing Jersey City officials for years to hire trained outreach workers with expertise in dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues to go out on such calls. If this program had been in place on Sunday, could the life of Andrew Jerome Washington have been spared?
It is our view that Mr. Washington, the 52-year-old Jersey City resident struggling with mental illness, died as much as a result of willful neglect as of police bullets.
In 2020, partly in response to the death of George Floyd, Jersey City Together started working with Mayor Steven Fulop and city officials to hire such outreach workers. The cornerstone of the model we proposed is deep training — training of each responder in each tier of response — 911, social work and behavioral outreach workers, and police.
On April 27, 2022, we were successful in convincing the Jersey City Council to pass a resolution (8-0) to put such a program in place. Sadly, and now tragically, the funding for this approach has never been earmarked, and not a single social worker, including a social worker who might very well have saved Mr. Washington’s life, has ever been hired.
Many municipalities in New Jersey and others across the country already have what we could have in place on that tragic Sunday. Take for example a program in Miami-Dade County, a county of 2.6 million residents in Florida with high numbers of homeless, unhoused, and those with serious mental illness conditions.
Pioneered by Judge Stephen Leifman, the county has a system in place that recognizes the need for special training, special facilities, and special care when it comes to just the kind of encounter that led to Andrew Jerome Washington’s untimely death.
The 911 dispatchers in Miami-Dade County are trained to ask a caller if the person involved is struggling with mental illness. If so, the call is diverted to officers who have been trained in crisis Intervention methods. Those officers are sometimes accompanied by a social worker or mental health specialist.
Once the first responders defuse the crisis, they take the individual to a Crisis Stabilization Unit (or Diversion Center), a facility staffed with mental health professionals and equipped to address the immediate needs of the person in crisis.
In other words, individuals already disoriented are no longer taken to a jail cell or to a crowded and often chaotic emergency room, which often upsets the person even more. If longer-term care is needed, other facilities are in place to help the individual stabilize and return to society.
Since the creation of this system, the number of violent encounters between police and those with serious mental illness has plummeted. An entire wing of a jail has been closed because it is no longer filled with the mentally ill who have no other place to go. The police, the loved ones of those in the grips of serious mental illness, and the community at large have all become strong supporters of this humane system.
Simply put, we, the members of Jersey City Together and the good citizens of Jersey City, have to face the reality that our mayor, now running for higher office, has talked about his ability to get things done. In this area, our mayor has failed to get the job done.
Fulop, our city officials and our elected leaders either did not have the desire or lacked the competence to put this program into place as so many other cities have done. That reality must change. NOW!! Before another life is lost.
So, as we have done in a public memorial service in May on the third anniversary of George Floyd’s death, and as we have done in the past two city council meetings, Jersey City Together calls on our elected officials to do all in their power to get this program in place before any more lives are lost.
Rev. Dr. Alonzo Perry Sr. is the pastor of pastor of the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Jersey City.
The Rev. Laurie Wurm is the rector at Grace Church Van Vorst in Jersey City. Both are key leaders with Jersey City Together.
Please sign our petition in support of hiring outreach workers in Jersey City.