Five days after a shooting attack targeting a kosher supermarket left four people dead, Mayor Steven Fulop sat down with Hamodia for a conversation about the ongoing investigation, community relations and the state of Jersey City.
What have the past five days been like for you?
It’s been non-stop, and we continue every day to get more information.
So today, for example, we’ve been in contact with law enforcement, and more and more information is coming out about who [the shooters] were, what they were doing, what their intentions were.
It’s been on one hand really difficult; on the other hand, it’s been encouraging seeing how the community’s pulled together and the amount of support for the community here in Jersey City and the families.
Take us through the events of last Tuesday, from the moment you first heard about the shooting.
I had a work lunch at a restaurant downtown near City Hall, so I was there, with, actually, a gentleman who is a big advocate, coincidentally, for the Jewish community in New Jersey – a very vocal advocate on that front – and about halfway through the lunch, I got a call from Public Safety Director James Shea. Normally he wouldn’t call, so I picked it up, and he said there was an active shooter on Bayview Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive, and there’s an officer hit. So I left the lunch, obviously, immediately.
Around what time was this?
We were there within minutes.
At that point there was still a lot of misinformation, chaos, trying to understand what was happening. We set up a command post. Probably about 15, 20 minutes later is when the radio call came in on Det. Seals’ passing.
And then, for the next three or four hours, there was a coordinated effort around figuring out how best to minimize any further damage.
It was an unbelievable show of support from police departments in the surrounding area. The weather was not good that day, so we certainly needed the help – whether it was the NYPD providing a helicopter overhead, or other departments providing drones. We have several BearCats – an armored vehicle – and the Port Authority provided one.
We continued to fortify the position around the target and eventually closed in with these BearCats.
I believe it was around 4:30 when they went in with the armored vehicle, and that’s when the standoff ended.
Probably around that time, maybe a little bit earlier.
We just wanted to wait until we had enough equipment to move closer and closer around them, and then we thought once we move closer in we wanted to make sure that we had everybody in position thinking that if they felt they were surrounded they were going to come out shooting.
Just to clarify the timeline, because details have been a bit fuzzy: The shooters, David Anderson and Francine Graham, came into the store blasting, killing Mindel Ferencz and Moshe Deutsch immediately. Then Moshe’s cousin, Chaim Deutsch, and a worker, Douglas Rodriguez, tried fleeing out the back door. They were both hit – Rodriguez fatally, while Chaim Deutsch escaped with a wound. Then Anderson and Graham were in the store for four hours, and were both alive until police went in with the armored vehicle at roughly 4:30?
During those four hours, was there any communication with the shooters?
No. We tried, but there was no real contact.
How did you try? You called the store’s phone number?
We tried the store’s phone number, trying to reach them.
What about their cellphones?
We tried, but clearly they weren’t interested in any of that. They weren’t interested in the hostage situation –
But there were no hostages.
Correct – but we didn’t know that at the time. We were unsure of what was happening inside there.
So there was basically no verbal communication at all?
So at 4:30, it was finally decided to go in.
At 4:30, we decided to move the BearCats in, there was some exchange of fire, and we thought that they were hit, but it was unclear whether it was fatal or not fatal, so we let them stay there for a little while, to kind of see if there was additional movement. Then we decided to send in the robot. The robot went in and kind of assessed the situation, and then we decided to send in the formal ESU and they made sure that the area was clear.
Once they cleared the store, it came over the radio that there was a potential pipe bomb in the U-Haul.
We had thought that once the situation was clear inside the store, we would start focusing on releasing the schools [in the area], because they were on lockdown. But once the pipe-bomb issue surfaced, we couldn’t release the schools; we had to delay that, because, obviously, we didn’t want thousands of kids and buses on the street with the potential of us moving that van.
It was a real fluid day. Police Chief Michael Kelly did a really amazing job.
One thing that has been a bit unclear: When exactly was Det. Seals killed? First there was a report that it happened at the cemetery, possibly a gun bust; then later on it was said that he had heard the shots at the store and he ran toward the store. Can you please clarify exactly what happened?
It was two separate incidents. And some of this has to be disclosed through the formal investigation, so I’ll share with you what I can share with you.
Det. Seals was killed prior to the incident at the store. More than likely, his interaction with [Anderson and Graham] changed their timeline.
He wasn’t looking to meet with them. He came across them – he was doing good police work – and they shot him.
So what happened? He noticed that it was a stolen car?
Some of that stuff will come out over time, but we were looking for that vehicle, and he came across it. I don’t want to get into it more than that. They shot him.
So more than likely he pulled them over because he saw a vehicle with a
stolen plate, and they shot him.
In the area of the cemetery.
And at that point, that probably escalated their timetable pretty significantly.
Knowing the cops would be on their tail.
This is all [conjecture] at this point – nobody will know [for certain], because they’re dead – but when you put together the timeline and circumstances, more than likely they thought that we were closer to them at that point than we actually were.
And Det. Seals was alone when he was shot. He was not with a partner.
Correct. He was meeting a confidential informant.
Around 6:30 p.m. that evening, you, the public safety director and the police chief gave a press conference. At that point, it was said that this began in the cemetery, but there was no indication that the store was specifically targeted.
We had left the scene. Chief Kelly handed over command to his second in charge, and went to the medical center, to see Det. Seals’ family. That is the second time I’ve experienced something like that as mayor. It’s really, really hard seeing a family crying over a deceased police officer. It’s a terrible thing to see, and it puts in perspective the work that those men and women do every single day.
The Police Department said goodbye, and they put his body in a hearse and took him to Newark.
From there, we did a press conference, and at that time, we hadn’t had a chance yet to review CCTV cameras, we hadn’t had a chance to review any of the information at that point. We were working off of what the scenario was, and there wasn’t any information to indicate anything at that point to say definitively one way or the other.
And I just want to take a step back: At the time of the incident, we didn’t recognize even, we didn’t have a conversation, that that was a kosher supermarket. During the incident itself, nobody discussed the fact that that was a kosher supermarket or targeted store, because our priority was not to think about, “Is this a targeted attack” or to think about details of why they’re attacking; the issue at that point is to stop any further damage.
Once we started piecing together their actions during that day, it became very clear to me that it was a targeted hate crime. And then there was a discussion around what to share and what not to share, and my opinion was that you had to be as forthcoming with the community as possible because our relationship is built on trust. And if I’m out there saying that we don’t know the reason when it’s very, very clear the reasons why, it undermines credibility and a relationship that we’re trying to build in the future.
So from when the press conference ended, until you tweeted that the attack was targeted, which I believe was sometime between 8:00 and 9:00, you had reviewed the tape and determined that it was targeted.
You just mentioned community relations. There’s been a lot of discussion about the community relations. What can you tell us about the neighborhood dynamic, between the nascent Jewish community and the established, largely black community?
I don’t think it’s fair to say that there’s a by-and-large tension between the two communities –
I didn’t use that word.
Other people have used that word; that’s why I’m saying that.
I think that a vocal minority has voiced displeasure at times about the growing community there. But the majority of people in that community are warm people, good neighbors, and embrace them as neighbors, and are positive about the diversity in that area.
There was a time when people were pushing this no-knock ordinance [so that homeowners could prevent people from knocking on their door and asking if their home was for sale], but over the last eight months, I would say that we haven’t heard anything; it’s been relatively quiet.
Every member of the Jersey City Jewish community that I’ve spoken with told me that they get along extremely well with their neighbors.
And they’ve all said that whatever tensions there are, are basically pushed by certain community activists or low-level officials who are trying to push some sort of agenda and feeding it to a compliant media, and that what they are hearing these officials talk about and the reports they’re seeing in the media are absolutely not the realities that they experience on a day-to-day basis with their neighbors.
I would agree with that 100%.
One of these many articles [on the supposed community tensions] appeared in The New York Times in 2017. It quotes you as saying that you believe Jersey City takes pride in its diversity but is concerned about, quote, “very aggressive solicitation.
“They literally go door to door and can be very pushy trying to purchase someone’s house. It’s not the best way to endear yourself to the community, and there’s been a lot of pushback,” unquote.
Can you discuss those comments?
When the Orthodox Jewish community made a decision to move from Williamsburg to Jersey City, it happened very, very quickly in a substantial number. It wasn’t like one family moving; I mean, it grew from like zero to a hundred in a short period of time. And the way that that community came over, and not everybody, but some, approached buying houses was fairly relentless to some of the long-time neighbors. In some cases, you had a willing and happy seller, which is totally fine, and that’s a great thing. And in some cases, you had people who would consistently say that it was borderline harassment.
And we were trying to find kind of a middle ground on that.
In some other communities that Jews have moved into, nobody wants to blatantly say, “We want to keep the Orthodox Jews out,” so they use coded language, like “no-knock.” And this is why people feel that “no-knock” is a thinly veiled way of saying, “Keep the Orthodox out.”
From my understanding, the people who drafted [the no-knock law] had meetings with the Orthodox community, and the end result was something that everybody felt comfortable with. So it wasn’t something that they pushed onto that Orthodox community without the Orthodox community being engaged.
In retrospect, do you in any way regret those comments to The Times, or do you stand by them?
I stand by them. I don’t regret them. My job is to call it how I see it, and I’ve tried repeatedly to do that, in this situation or that situation.
In that situation, I thought what I said was valid, and I still believe what I said is valid. And what I said on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, I thought that was valid. And I’m not apologizing for either of those two things.
Since the no-knock ordinance was enacted, your opinion of the neighborhood dynamic is …?
Since the no-knock has been enacted, two things have happened: the Jewish community has continued to grow, and what appeared to be an undercurrent of tension of a vocal minority seemed to subside. So if it took meetings and communication via an ordinance to achieve that, then that’s a good thing, ultimately, from my standpoint.
The Jewish center/shul/yeshiva, call it whatever you want, on 221 Martin Luther King Drive [next door to the supermarket], there was some controversy about that opening, because the area – after other houses of worship were already there – was zoned so that there could be no new houses of worship. So then there was a debate, is it a synagogue or is it a community center. [Opponents said it was a synagogue, and thus in violation of the zoning law; supporters said it was a community center which just happened to include a prayer space, and thus not in violation of the law.] Even if the motivation was not anti-Semitism, why would an area be zoned against houses of worship? Why would that even be an issue?
It’s a good example of trying to balance what’s fair and reasonable and right and wrong.
The restrictions on houses of worship were put in place prior to the Jewish community moving here; it’s very important to clarify that. The reason being that you had a lot of storefront houses of worship that were popping up, and we were trying to change that into an energized commercial corridor like it used to be. So they put restrictions.
It’s not abnormal for us to put restrictions on the type of commercial use that you can have on a storefront. If you look at the downtown area, we put a ton of restrictions on different types of commercial [uses]: no chain stores, no doctor’s offices in certain areas.
So you thought that it would harm the business district if there were places of worship?
That was driven by the community over there. We didn’t think it would harm the community; we thought a better use of the community was restaurants and storefronts that were regular commercial use, absolutely, on the ground floor, retail.
Why not leave that to the free market to decide?
Because sometimes when you leave everything up to the free market, the free market doesn’t always land in what’s the best for public good. It’s a good theory to say, “Hey, if you just leave everything to the free market, things will work out perfectly,” but it doesn’t always work out that way. So you try to find that balance. It’s the same thing that we did downtown. It’s no different to this community than other communities on how we’ve approached it.
Ultimately, the Jewish center was allowed to remain.
Right, because we tried to be fair and reasonable – despite the fact that there were people who complained and wanted me to close it down.
It was allowed to remain because it was considered a center as opposed to a synagogue.
Well, you could call it a center, you could call it a synagogue; it’s a shul to me, and a yeshiva. Like the expression, a rose by a different name is still a rose.
The reality of the situation is that we tried to balance it and not to single out one community. So in that situation, when some people came forward and said, hey, this is in violation, we said, well then it’s going to pertain to everybody, and that was the stance I took on that.
Again, I stand by that decision. I think we acted fairly and reasonably and justly.
Back to the attackers: Graham is from Elizabeth, N.J. Anderson lived in Jersey City until, I believe, 2014 or 2015.
Do we know his whereabouts after then?
We do – we know a lot more than just that – but I can’t [discuss] it.
I’m trying to zero in on the motive, and why he chose that location.
I can answer that for you.
Number one, it’s no secret that even in recent years, they’ve had a great deal of familiarity with Jersey City.
So even though he left before the Jews moved in, he’s been around since then.
Number two, that location being a center for the Jewish community in Jersey City, is not a secret to anybody. So if you look at those two things in concert, you would understand why somebody looking to target Jewish people would target that location.
And it’s believed that he’s been associated with the Black Hebrew Israelites, and that this attack was motivated by that ideology?
Again, they’re both deceased; you’re never going to know –
That’s why I said, it’s “believed.”
Look, I have different responsibilities than the people conducting the investigation. My responsibilities are to try to be upfront, and I get paid to make a decision and have an opinion. I make a decision based on those opinions, and then people decide every four years whether they agreed with those decisions. That’s my job.
So my belief is yes, that they had a favorable sentiment towards anti-Semitic groups, and they chose that place because of their feelings towards Jews.
Although, as I mentioned, the Jewish community members told me that they generally get along wonderfully with their neighbors, many said they have been harassed by the Black Hebrew Israelites; apparently there are a number of them in that neighborhood. Have you ever heard this before?
No. We’ve heard no reports of that.
None of them told me that they ever reported it.
If somebody felt threatened, I would have hoped that they’d report it.
In America in general, and in the tri-state area, particularly Crown Heights and Williamsburg, there has been a rise in anti-Semitism. Do you believe that what happened here is in any way related to that, that anti-Semites have become emboldened to act rather than just talk?
I think that [what happened] Tuesday doesn’t represent the sentiment in that community or the city. I really don’t. I think that this was an outlier, a person with clearly mental issues, and ideologies that were not in line with most of the community there.
And I say “mental issues” only because I think anybody who lives and breathes hate like that clearly has a mental issue.
You don’t mean that he has a documented psychiatric history.
No. I have no idea what his mental capacity is.
So while there’s no way to know for certain, because, again, the attackers are dead, do you believe they were motivated by any of the “vocal minority” anti-Semitism over the last few years, or was it just the Black Hebrew Israelite thing?
As far as I know, it’s just the Black Israelites. It’s not a broader issue than that, as it stands today. I don’t think it represents the Jersey City community.
Do you believe that further steps should be taken to combat anti-Semitism? What steps, if any, are you, the police department, and community leaders taking going forward?
Let me take a couple takeaways.
First, with regards to this specific incident: If I look at what we can do better, I think that there were, on the day of the incident, some communication things that we could have done better with regard to certain schools in the area that are non-public, and how we foster that communication on the incident. That’s a takeaway for me that we’re working on improving.
I think long-term there’s also a communication gap that we need to correct with that Orthodox community. I’ve had connections with them and have been to plenty of events for them, but I think I need to foster a broader community engagement between them and some of the surrounding areas there. And I think that once we’re done with the shiva, and once they are ready, that’s the road back that we’re going to take.
And we’ve talked about adding a chaplain to the JCPD to help with communication on that front, and having a point person within the city. Those are all actionable steps that, when we had a meeting [with Jewish leaders] on Wednesday, we said we’re going to take.