For a journalist without a background in law, it was an easy trap to fall into. In a December press conference, Mayor Fulop and Director of Public Safety James Shea brought out charts and made statements suggesting that violent crime in Jersey City had gone down. A press release from the mayor spoke of “historic decreases in violent crime...for 2023.” Within hours, several news organizations were reporting the story. The problem was, the story wasn't true. Violent crime was, in fact, up.

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Among the misleading materials produced by the administration to support the false narrative that crime was down were two charts that figured prominently during the press conference.

One entitled “Violent Crimes” listed only homicides and shootings, which had gone down in the preceding year. Buried in a second chart, entitled simply “Jersey City Crime Data,” were the two largest categories of violent crime, robbery and aggravated assault, both of which had gone up.

The F.B.I. defines violent crime as homicide, robbery, aggravated assault and rape. But the administration moved the two largest categories of violent crime, robbery and aggravated assault, to a second chart entitled simply “Jersey City Crime Data.” (Shootings are not a crime, but a method of committing a crime. The city has not released rape statistics, which tend to be a small number and often unreported.)

There was no indication on the second, generic, chart that robbery and aggravated assault are considered violent crime.

The two largest categories of violent crime, robbery and aggravated assault, which had increased and which the F.B.I. classifies as violent crimes, were intermingled with non-violent crimes. In response to a records request, the city provided data for the full year of 2023; Motor Vehicle Theft, 677; Burglary, 812; Robbery with a weapon, 129; Robbery 380; Criminal Mischief, 1,100; Aggravated Assault, 855; Larceny-Theft, 3067. Robbery (both with and without a weapon) is normally grouped together under Robbery and falls under the category of violent crime, as does Aggravated Assault.

Properly grouping homicides, aggravated assaults and robberies together, the city experienced an 11% increase in violent crime from 2022 to 2023. Over the mayor’s first ten years in office, the rate of violent crime increased 6%, driven by a 95% increase in the number of aggravated assaults.

Despite the increase in violent crime, communications from the mayor said otherwise. On the day of the press conference, a press release from the mayor's office said “Mayor Fulop & Public Safety Officials Announce Historic Crime Decreases in Jersey City for 2023.” It went on to “announce historic decreases in violent crime and other major crime categories for 2023.”

The administration's own statistics showed that only one category of crime, homicide, was historically low, falling by one death from the previous low in 2012. In 2023, violent crime increased over the previous year by 11% and over the mayor's first year in office, 2014, by 6%. Non-violent crime fell from the previous year by 2% but was up from 2014 by 7%.

A tweet from the mayor's office that the press conference would discuss “record-breaking benchmarks that were met.” In fact, there was only one record, the homicide rate, which represented just 1% of Jersey City's violent crime. The ten homicides of 2023 would best the previous low of 11 in 2012 by just one death. In the run-up to the press conference, Fulop called the city's accomplishments on crime a “big deal.”

As if to back up the mayor's claims, U.S. Attorney Phil Sellinger made a guest appearance at the press conference. But his unusual presence may have further muddied the water and leant support to the false narrative that violent crime was down. “This year, as the mayor stated, we have seen record-breaking statistics in Jersey City,” he said. Twice he noted his collaboration with the administration to “stem the flow of violent crime,” an idiom more commonly used to describe an effort to limit the proliferation of guns.

From left, U.S. Attorney Phil Sellinger, Mayor Steven Fulop, Public Safety Director James Shea and Police Director Tawana Moody.

Public Safety Director James Shea didn't clarify matters. When he went to the podium and displayed the second chart entitled merely “Jersey City Crime Data,” he noted that two “major” crimes, aggravated assault and robbery, were up “slightly.” In fact robbery was up over the previous year by 16% and aggravated assault by 9%. Moreover, Shea made no mention of the fact these two crimes are classified as violent.

Asked why the administration might have left robbery and aggravated assault off a chart entitled “Violent Crimes,” says Alejandro Giménez Santana, Assistant Professor at Rutgers and Co-Executive Director of the Newark Public Safety Collaborative, opined diplomatically, “I think because they wanted you to pay attention to where the reduction was.”

Another way the administration was able to show a reduction was its unusual step of breaking out shootings. “When you show one, you are kind of showing the other” says Giménez Santana of the relationship between homicides and gunfire. “I don't include shootings unless someone asks for it.” Similarly, Jiménez Santana doesn't break out robberies with a gun, as the administration did, allowing another downward arrow. “Robbery involves also robbery with a weapon. I don't know why they did it that way.”

If the administration intended to mislead the press, it succeeded. Beyond N.J. Spotlight News and CBS News, three news websites repeated the administration's false narrative.

A day after the press conference, media confusion continued, as shown by the mayor's interview with Insider NJ.

“As for public safety, given the fact he’s a mayor of the state’s second largest city, Fulop has a record here. And it’s one he’s happy to talk about. He said on Monday that crime is dropping across the board in his city” wrote the interviewer.

Given the mayor's history, it was surprising that some in the press continue to take the mayor's representations at face value. In 2019, The Jersey Journal and the Wall Street Journal were led by the mayor and the Public Safety Director to report inaccurate crime data, including the false claim that Jersey City had achieved “a 50-year low in homicides.” In 2021, several media outlets repeated the mayor's false claim, made at a 2022 press conference, that the city would see a record low number of homicides that year.

The mayor's misstatements have gone beyond the extent of crime to explanations for his decision to keep CompStat data, used by police departments to track and respond to crime, hidden from the public. At a community meeting in 2022, he said publication of the data was unnecessary because all reports on violent crime were given to the Jersey Journal. The Jersey Journal declined to confirm or deny the mayor’s statement when asked about it by the Montreal Olympics but, tellingly, a reporter from the paper recently noted the city's lack of transparency.

The mayor later told an interviewer that crime data was regularly given to the New Jersey State Police. The state police told the Montreal Olympics that Jersey City is two years behind in its reporting to the state.

Aaron is a writer, musician and lawyer. Aaron attended Berklee College of Music and the State University of New York at Purchase. Aaron served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. He received a J.D....