Jersey City’s New Police Chief Has Never Been a Cop

Should a civilian run the police? Jersey City thinks so.
December 8, 2021, 12:24pm
Tawana Moody
Tawana Moody (image vi

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Tawana Moody has never conducted an arrest. She’s never had a badge or a police-issued gun, and she hasn’t gone through academy training. Yet she’s in charge of Jersey City, New Jersey’s 950-officer police department. 

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Moody, a 50-year-old Black woman with no traditional law enforcement experience, became the country’s first civilian police leader earlier this year, when her predecessor retired. To address the growing gap between the force and the community at a time when national faith in law enforcement was at an all-time low, Democratic Mayor Steven Fulop decided the department needed a fresh perspective and appointed Moody, instead of a sworn officer, in February. 

“I was born and raised in Jersey City my whole life,” Moody, who’s also the first Black woman to lead the department, said of the fast-growing and racially diverse city, just outside Manhattan. “Growing up here, we know the struggle of what people didn’t understand about homelessness, about the drug dealers and other issues in the city. And all the community really wants is accountability and to know what’s going on.”

Police departments often hire leaders who’ve retired or haven’t worked on the force in years—much like the Constitution’s requirement for control of the military. But unlike Moody, these retired officers have always had a firm foundation in law enforcement, working their way up the police hierarchy for decades before exiting and returning to lead. Without that same experience, the idea is that Moody can merge the interests of the community and the department, without the same pressure to adhere to the problematic elements of police culture, like the “Blue Wall of Silence.” 

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“Communities want accountability, and believe it or not, police officers want to be better.”

Although Moody initially faced some pushback, especially from the local police union, the new direction has largely proven to be a success. Almost a year into the role, she’s implemented half a dozen reforms, like improving the arrest process and adding more police training, and other departments around the country are keeping a close eye on the results of her tenure. 

“People seem to think police executives would be against what we’re doing here, but a lot of them have called to ask, ‘Hey, does it work?’” said Jersey City Public Safety Director Jim Shea, though he declined to specify who’s asked.

Moody has worked for the Jersey City police department for 16 years. She started out as a clerk and eventually worked her way up to the position of police director in 2018. In that role, she oversaw the administrative needs of all the department’s officers and civilian employees.

So when the time came to pick a new head of the police department, the longtime mayor saw Moody as the perfect choice. She had experience working with police, but she wasn’t actually a cop. The rank of chief, however, can only be given to someone who was a police supervisor for at least five years. Instead, the city folded all the responsibilities of the chief into Moody’s new role as police director, making her the top cop in everything but name.

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“If you're gonna change the culture, maybe a different perspective is helpful,” Fulop told VICE News. “Moody has a different perspective and an understanding of some of the trials and frustrations, the difficulties, that some of the harder-to-reach communities have.”

The idea of civilian oversight of policing is growing in popularity. This summer, city leaders in Chicago passed an ordinance to give non–law enforcement community leaders more input on who leads the police department. The mayor of St. Louis also recently announced plans to give civilians more insight with the creation of an Office of Public Accountability.

But not everyone in Jersey City was on board with an outsider taking up the mantle at first. Fulop said he received calls from individuals who questioned the appointment.

“Whether it’s members of leadership in the union, or individual officers, saying, ‘We think it should be someone internal’ or ‘She’s never been in a uniform before, so she’s not going to be able to do the job,’” Fulop said.

Joseph Cossolini, the president of the Jersey City Police Superior Officers Association, told VICE News people in the union may have had some initial reservations, but considering Moody’s reputation in the department, it wouldn’t have come from a sincere place.

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“Anytime there’s change, there’s going to be friction, right?” Cossolini said. “You upset the status quo, and people will get upset. But at the end of the day, as long as everyone is partners in the right place, and they’re making decisions based on facts and the betterment of the community, how can anyone have a problem with that?”

After a few months, skepticism about Moody’s appointment subsided, according to Fulop.

Since then, Moody has been able to push through much of her agenda. She restructured centralized booking in the city to prevent long and complicated stays in jail. Before her tenure, a single arrest once involved taking a person to at least three different locations. Now, processing all takes place in one location.

According to Shea, most cops would never think of that. 

“She asked, ‘Why doesn’t all this happen in one place?’ And the answer was, ‘It's always been like this, so why would we change it?” Shea said. “Now, officers are safer, spend less time transporting suspects, meaning there are fewer opportunities for false accusations against them. And suspects spend less time in uncomfortable cells in handcuffs, they’re moved to court faster. It just works for everybody.”

Moody has also instituted a rule of two officers per patrol car so cops can hold each other accountable. She has also stressed the importance of body cameras and changed the way the department deals with complaints, handling newly filed complaints personally as soon as they are submitted rather than letting them stack up and addressing them whenever convenient.

“Communities want accountability, and believe it or not, police officers want to be better,” Moody said. “While it's easy to have that conversation, in my opinion, it's different once you're trying to make it happen. And you need someone who’s going to welcome change and is willing to work to make that difference happen.”

Moody has even created a training bureau at the department’s Municipal Utilities Authority and Office of Emergency Management facilities that offers new mandatory courses year-round to help keep officers’ skills evolving and sharp. The department has also used the space for civilian training sessions to teach people how to deal with an active shooter as well as the ins-and-outs of the Fourth Amendment, which protests against unlawful searches and seizures.

“She does represent the community, so as far as trust-building, the community will give her a bit more of it,” said Brian Higgins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former police chief for the department in Bergen County, New Jersey. “But the bigger upside of not having a sworn officer in the position is that she doesn’t come from the culture.”

Although Moody leads the department, she doesn’t make decisions without the input of experienced cops. She works with Shea and other executives in her department to collaborate on what’s best for the city.

“What you see in Jersey City is this coming together,” Higgins said. “You didn’t get rid of the traditional executive experience; you just brought somebody in to lead who represents more of the community’s concerns and doesn’t have that mentality of ‘This is the way we have to do things because that what policing says.’”

At a time of overwhelming calls for reform, integrating the knowledge that civilian employees bring to departments with that of multiyear police veterans may be the middle ground that pleases everyone.

“In many agencies, there’s a divide between those who are sworn in and those who are civilian. Civilians are usually not held to the level of respect that the officers are,” Thomas said. “​​What the sworn side doesn’t recognize is that the organization doesn’t run without those people. They are a lifeline and an invaluable asset with perspective like no other for any police department wanting to make change.”