By Ricardo Kaulessar- Photos by Ricardo Kaulessar
The funeral for Jersey City Police
Officer Melvin Santiago on Friday offered a somber pause, a reflective respite from a very tense week for law enforcement and the public at large.
The 23-year-old was laid to rest at St. Aloysius Church on West Side Avenue, mourned by grieving family and friends, his fellow officers, and elected officials. Also, hundreds of officers from locations as far away as Philadelphia lined the street outside when his casket was brought into the church.
Santiago was killed on July 13 at around 4 a.m. when the rookie officer and his partner, Ismael Martinez, responded to a 911 call about an armed robbery at the Walgreens Pharmacy on Communipaw Avenue and Kennedy Boulevard. Authorities said the assailant Lawrence Campbell, 27, did not rob the drug store but assaulted a security guard and took his gun, which he used to fire close range at Santiago’s vehicle with a bullet hitting Santiago in the head and killing him. Police returned gunfire that killed Campbell.
Since then, emotions have run high amongst those outraged at Santiago’s death and those who were upset over Campbell’s death.
Rumors circulated during the week that there would be retaliation from street gangs against local police for Campbell being killed as well as the unrelated death of Lavon King, 20, whose confrontation with a Jersey City police officer on June 24 that led to him being shot dead when trying to wrestle away the officer’s gun. Authorities said while King was affiliated with the Bloods, Campbell was not known to have any gang connection.
And there was the tearing down by the city of memorials put up separately for Campbell and King, each located within blocks of one another on Martin Luther King Drive, in response to negative reactions by residents and others outside the city who viewed the makeshift shrines as glorifying criminal behavior and anti-police sentiment. Supporters of the memorials told local media they were erected to remember members of their community who lost their lives.
In the midst of this tumult, city officials and police brass sought to get the focus on Santiago for giving his life in the line of duty by honoring him with a posthumous promotion to detective and the department’s Medal of Honor. And by giving him the kind of funeral befitting a fallen hero.
Remembering Melvin Santiago
Charles Reynolds in 1883. Clarence Weir in 1921. Caspar Buonocore, Jr. in 1973. Melvin Vincent Santiago in 2014. They are among the 39 men who died while on the job during the Jersey City Police Department’s 185 years of operation.
The 39th member of this tragic fraternity laid in a closed casket in a packed church that resonated with tributes, prayers and music as part of a solemn farewell to Santiago.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop in his eulogy for Santiago called him “hard working and conscientious, good and courageous, strong and considerate” and pointed out how those traits served the rookie cop well in his seven months on the job working out the city’s tough West District.
“And whether it was neighbors’ yelling, domestic disputes, or the threat of gun violence, Melvin was intent upon good prevailing over evil, protecting the vulnerable, and order maintained in our community,” Fulop said.
Santiago was also remembered by his uncle, retired Jersey City policeman Frank DeFazio, as someone looking to follow the career path paved by DeFazio and other relatives in becoming one of the city’s finest, and how he achieved that goal only to pay the ultimate price.
“You made the ultimate sacrifice … I will make sure you are never forgotten,” DeFazio said. “I love you Mel.”
Former Jersey City Police Chaplain Kevin Carter said the reason for the officer’s death is that “human life is so cheap today,” and that Santiago went to his final crime scene to “serve and protect” the citizens of Jersey City.
After the funeral, Santiago’s casket was taken out of St. Aloysius Church by several police officers and placed in a hearse that traveled to Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington for a private burial.
Santiago is survived by various family members including his mother Cathy McBride, his stepfather Alex McBride, his father Melvin Santiago Sr., and his stepbrother Alex Jr.