JERSEY CITY — A day after a 23-year-old police officer was gunned down in an ambush, mourners erected a makeshift memorial to his killer on a brick wall on Orient Avenue in Jersey City. Officials took down the “cop killer memorial” after disgust was expressed in international media.
The memorial erected to the accused killer of Officer Melvin Santiago was adorned with message to the obscure criminal who ambushed Officer Melvin Santiago early Sunday as he responded to an armed robbery call at a 24-hour pharmacy. Other officers returned fire, killing the suspected gunman.
Visitors to the memorial declined to give their names to reporters but one neighbor said she knew the dead killer was nothing like the person officials say ambushed officers and slayed the rookie cop.
“He was a good man. He looked out for everybody on the block,” the neighbor said.
In a televised interview, the killer’s widow remarked that she was sorry for Santiago’s family but that her husband should have killed more of the police who were planning to kill him. She later apologized for the comments.
Mayor Steven Fulop and others expressed anger that some residents were grieving for the suspect instead of the slain officer.
Fulop called the widow’s comments “ignorant” and “disgusting” while Police Director James Shea said they weren’t representative of Jersey City, where distrust of police is common among residents.
“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 set up outside the Walgreens where he was slain, was significantly smaller than the one for his killer.
Crime in the Hudson River community across from Manhattan shines a stark contrast against glittering waterfront, gleaming office towers and artsy shops that are part of a long period of economic improvement and gentrification.
Police presence has been ramped up in the poorest neighborhoods 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 from the public’s mind by an incident such as the cop killing.
Violent crime in Jersey City dropped 22 percent 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 are looking for clues to explain why the 27-year-old assailant, who had previous drug arrests and was released from jail in January, would have committed such a violent act.
The gunman did not rob the Walgreen’s, but he assaulted the store’s armed security guard, took his gun, waited for officers to arrive and then shot the 23-year-old Santiago in the head, according to Fulop.
The alleged killer told someone to watch the news later because he was “going to be famous” so we are withholding further identification to maintain his obscurity.
Santiago’s funeral is scheduled for Friday at St. Aloysius Catholic Church.
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