At the August 13 meeting of the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders, community members from North Jersey Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Hudson County Progressive Alliance, NJ08 for Progress, and the Mutual Aid Tenant Collective of Hudson County (MATCH) spoke out against the sudden, unjustified purchase of over $130,000 in ammunition, vehicle weapon mounts, and unspecified “defensive equipment” for the county sheriff and the county SWAT team operated by the prosecutor’s office. In response, freeholder Albert Cifelli (District 9) informed the public that some of these purchases were for “less lethal munitions” including tear gas canisters or tools for launching tear gas, which was not information given to the public prior to this meeting. He brought this up because he had demanded assurances that such tools would not be used against peaceful protestors, and neither the prosecutor’s office nor the sheriff were willing to commit to that. In the end, following nine public comments on the matter, the board voted against purchasing roughly $10,000 worth of tear-gas and other unspecified “less lethal” munitions, 6-2. In addition, three freeholders (O’Dea, Torres, and Cedeño) voted against the other purchases requested by the prosecutor’s office and sheriff, including $58,000 worth of ammunition (nominally for ‘training purposes’) and $22,000 worth of “riot helmets.”
“We are glad the freeholders stopped the purchase of chemical weapons to be used against the people of Hudson County. However, this meeting made it clear how bloated law enforcement in Hudson County has become, and how much the public has been kept in the dark about how their money is being spent,” says North Jersey DSA member Jeff Lewkowitz, who participated in the meeting. “If not for freeholder Cifelli’s pointed questions, we would never have known what this ‘defensive equipment’ was, and there’s nothing ‘defensive’ about using a respiratory chemical agent during a pandemic. The fact that the prosecutor’s and sheriff’s office couldn’t even get over the low bar of promising that these weapons would only be used in ‘barricade and hostage situations’ shows how little regard law enforcement in the county has for the civilian government or the people they allegedly protect. It also goes to show that we need to pay attention to the line items: appropriations can alter budgets drastically.”
The redundancy of law enforcement in the county was also fully on display. The board of freeholders, several years ago, voted to create a county SWAT team, assembled from all of the police forces in the county. However, the sheriff’s office, which also operates at the county level, has its own SWAT team. Neither the freeholders nor the prosecutor, nor the representative of the sheriff’s office, could explain the need for this redundant structure.
Everyone in Hudson County is under the jurisdiction of their town or city police, the county sheriff, state police, and, as it turns out, another completely different SWAT team. This bloated redundancy came under community scrutiny at a time when the local schools of technology, in the same meeting, had to explain why they were charging parents a $350 “activity fee” to provide after-school programs, in order to make up for lost funds from the state. In fact, the amount of money that has already been spent on law enforcement has led to more expenditures, including security cameras for a new overflow lot for vehicles used by county law enforcement. So much has been spent on redundant law enforcement resources at the county level that they need to spend more just to have space for it all. One community member at the meeting described these ongoing purchases as an “interdepartmental arms race,” with no benefit for public safety. Other critiques included a lack of transparency such as the absence of reports on the use of force by the county sheriff or the county SWAT team.
North Jersey DSA recently adopted a #DefundthePolice campaign, to focus on Jersey City and Newark. It calls on the freeholder board to stop approving these excesses on the part of county law enforcement, to stop purchasing weapons of war and chemical munitions for use against the residents of Hudson County, and to direct those resources instead to urgent needs in rent relief, food security, and education.
Learn more at @NorthNJDSA or https://www.facebook.com/NorthNJDSA/