JERSEY CITY, N.J. – A day after a rookie police officer was gunned down in an ambush, mourners came to pay their respects at a makeshift memorial with candles, balloons, empty liquor bottles and messages of love from friends scrawled on T-shirts taped to a brick wall.
Instead of honouring the officer, the memorial was for his killer. “Rest easy,” “Thug in peace” and “See u on the other side” friends wrote about Lawrence Campbell, who police say ambushed Officer Melvin Santiago early Sunday as he responded to an armed robbery call at a 24/7 pharmacy. Officers returned fire, killing Campbell.
Visitors to the memorial would not give their names to The Associated Press. But Barbara Jones, Campbell’s neighbour, told The Jersey Journey that the Campbell she knew was nothing like the man city officials say was lying in wait for officers to arrive before opening fire.
“He was a good man. He looked out for everybody on the block,” Jones told the newspaper.
Angelique Campbell, Campbell’s widow, told News 12 New Jersey on Sunday that she was sorry for Santiago’s family but that her husband should have killed more officers if they were planning to kill him. She later apologized for the comments.
City officials lashed out that some residents were grieving for the suspect instead of the officer.
Mayor Steven Fulop called Angelique Campbell’s comments “ignorant” and “disgusting.” Police Director James Shea said they weren’t representative of the city or even of Campbell’s neighbourhood in southwest Jersey City, where the majority of shootings in the city take place and where distrust of police is as much a staple as boarded-up houses and groups of young men hanging out on street corners at midday.
“I firmly believe that the people who made the ignorant comments on the TV and the people who put up a memorial to a cowardly murderer who shot somebody in the head without giving him a chance are not representative of the people who live up there,” Shea said.
“We know that because our officers interact with them every day. There is a minority of criminals that makes their job dangerous, but there is a large population up there that they are proud to serve.”
A temporary memorial to the slain officer – significantly smaller than the one for Campbell – was set up outside the Walgreens where he was killed, drawing mourners as the store reopened Monday.
Crime remains an issue, even as the town on the Hudson River across from Manhattan has seen economic improvement and gentrification. Campbell’s neighbourhood – and the Walgreens less than a mile away – is the other Jersey City, the one far away from downtown and its glittering waterfront, gleaming office towers and artisanal taco shops.
Police presence has been amped up there over the last several months. Fulop and Shea said the strategy had shown some positive results but that any progress on violent crime is fragile and can be erased, at least in the public’s mind, by an incident such as Sunday’s.
Violent crime in Jersey City dropped 22 per cent in the first three months of 2014, compared with the same period a year ago, according to statistics compiled by the New Jersey State Police. There have been 15 homicides this year.
“We’ve certainly been trending in the right direction,” Fulop said. “We took the approach of aggressive police sweeps and visibility and that has made progress. But you also see over time, in any urban area, the bad guys adjust, and then we need to adjust.
“There are people in every single community who just don’t value life and this is highlighted by a situation like this. There’s a lot of reasons for that – some of it is decades of how they perceive police, some it’s jobs, some of it is socioeconomics – but at the end of the day, we’re dealing with it today.”
Police said they are looking for clues to explain why the 27-year-old Campbell, who had previous drug arrests and was released from jail in January, would have committed such a violent act.
Campbell, who didn’t try to rob the Walgreen’s, assaulted the store’s armed security guard and snatched his gun, Fulop said. Then, he told someone to watch the news later because he was “going to be famous.”
Campbell waited for officers to arrive and shot the 23-year-old Santiago with what police believe was the guard’s weapon. Santiago’s funeral is scheduled for Friday at St. Aloysius Catholic Church.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in Jersey City contributed to this report.
© The Canadian Press, 2014