By Ron Miskoff and Carolyn Maxwell
PERTH AMBOY – City residents, including a family member of a man who was shot last week, demanded Wednesday night that the City do more to improve the delicate situation that has evolved over the tactics used by police.
For one, some people who addressed the City Council asked strenuously that a security video of the incident be released, if not to the general public, then at least to the family of Dixon Rodriguez, 34, the victim.
Police said Rodriguez was special needs. He was shot by two police officers as he tried to lunge at them with a knife, cops said.
Police have released an audio tape of the call that Rodriguez’ mother made to 911 in which she describes her son as “violent.” But the video of the actual shooting was not made public as of the time of the Council meeting.
“I’m not here to say who is wrong, There was another shooting, but that person was shot in the stomach and survived. My main concern is that the video has not been shown.” said Sandra, a spokesperson for the family, who described herself as Rodriguez’ cousin. “It has a been a week ago today (12/11/13) that he (Dixon Rodriguez) was killed. We are not faulting anyone but we need answers and we need peace. I’m asking for that – to see the video. Perth Amboy is not a bad city.”
Resident Dot Daniel said, “In the past we used to have places for the mentally ill to go to.” She faulted the late President Ronald Reagan for closing places like Marlboro State Hospital. “Now when we take the mentally ill to a facility, they are only for twenty- eight days. When something bad happens, it’s always the police’s fault. But that is not always the case.”
Chief of Police Benjamin Ruiz made a statement, “I met with the family and this is a tragedy for the whole City. Unfortunately in New Jersey, the County Prosecutor takes the lead. We cannot give out statements. We are prohibited. They are my boss. The Prosecutor gives evidence to the Attorney General which is their boss. We have met with all parties involved. The Police Chaplains cannot go to the scene. That is not their function. It is not my place or authority to respond to the media. We can’t play up to the press. The initial video (audio part) were released for the community to have something.”
That means the Perth Amboy police are precluded from speaking about the investigation without the prosecutor’s approval, he said. Ruiz tried to explain the system that the police must follow, though the audience was skeptical.
That, residents said, ratchets up the tension between the city and the police.
Other residents, while accepting the fact that police did, in fact, probably stop a potentially violent situation, contended that relations between citizens and police could be better.
“I’ve seen police stop people and frisking them with no reason,” said another speaker. “The prosecutor is under the same belief that they [the family] should see the tape,” Ruiz said.
While residents were speaking before the Council, Ruiz, got up from his seat in the audience to sit in by the Council next to the B.A. separating and made his statement from there.
Mayor Wilda Diaz, who was also in attendance at the meeting, did the same.
“There is a process,” Diaz said. “We don’t have control over the process. I know Perth Amboy is going through a difficult time. No Police Officer has intentions of anything like this happening. I met with the family and the officer’s families. We are not investigating. It is out of our hands. We need to respect the integrity of the investigation. We need to respect the privacy of all families and the City of Perth Amboy. Let the Attorney General and the Prosecutor do their job.”
But her comments did not ease the anger of some residents, particularly family, who attended the Council meeting. After the Council took a break to go into closed session to discuss personnel maters which included a raise for Ruiz, Diaz was confronted by the Rodriguez family outside the Council Chambers during the closed session.
It was a late starter ordinance of the first reading affecting salary ranges and increments for officers and employees of the City of Perth Amboy Police Chief/Director. The vote was three to two, with Council President Joel Pabon and Councilman William Petrick voting against the measure.
After the meeting when Petrick was asked why he opposed the ordinance, which cited the police chief position but did not name Ruiz, he answered, “I still need more information.”
When pressed to answer whether it was because he had a philosophical disagreement with the ordinance, he said, “I won’t go there.”
City Business Administrator Gregory Fehrenbach said the old salary for the chief topped out at $159,475 a year. The new ordinance places the top possible salary at $161,068, he said.
Whether Ruiz will be paid that amount, Fehrenbach said, is up to the Mayor. The council, he said, only decides the minimum and maximum amounts; the Mayor’s job is to set the actual salary within that range.
He repeatedly said that he did not want to respond to media criticism over the shooting, apparently over the release of the video tape. The tape was apparently shot from a nearby security camera, police said.
Resident David Caba used the moment to criticize the police in general. Caba told the Council, “A tragedy happened on Wilda’s Street. I’m disappointed as a resident. Leaders only come out when things are okay. I’m also talking to you. (Gesturing to the Council) Leadership starts at the top. I am not questioning the police department. but there might be a few bad apples there, too. If the prosecutor’s office is handling this, they are in cahoots. . They should ask for a thorough investigation. This is going to be a civil rights violation. Where are the Police Chaplain Corps at this tragedy? No one from the Council took a stand. No one came out to comfort the City. If someone shot the police there would be a big news conference.”
Ruiz said there are actually 56 leaders of worship in Perth Amboy.
Former Councilman Fernando Gonzalez said to the Council, “We need in this community the police and administration to let the community know that they are here to protect them. There are so many unanswered questions. Why weren’t other methods used such as batons?” Fernando Gonzalez continued that he used to meet with this young man several times when he would come into a club where Gonzalez was a member. “He (Dixon Rodriguez) was never aggressive. We need to put together a community based group so this could never happen again. This is a bad reflection on the City. A mother seeking help for her son, and the kid gets killed. No matter how you look at it, there is something wrong there.”
*Photos by Paul W. Wang & Ron Miskoff