A long blue line comes out to honor Detective Joseph Seals and shows that law enforcement will never be deterred
How far did this blue line stretch? Six blocks, seven blocks, eight blocks along John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City and Bergen Avenue in Jersey City. Nine blocks, 10 blocks, maybe more with as many 11,000 law enforcement officers from across the state, the country, perhaps even the world standing taller than they ever have on this dreary, miserable and heartbreaking Dec. 17 morning.
Nobody would have been faulted for backing down from a merciless freezing rain that infiltrated the funeral for fallen Jersey City Police Detective Joseph Seals. But nobody did. They owed it to Detective Seals for the way he stood up and stood tall every day leading up to the horrific Dec. 10 tragedy when he was assassinated by terrorists at Bayview Cemetery.
“No rain, no snow, no fear. That’s it,” barked Nicholas Leto, a Fairview officer and member of the Eastern Bergen Local 45 executive board who obviously never wavered as he stood on the line. “We’re going to stand together. We’re going to come out on top.”
The 11,000, including members from just about every NJSPBA Local, seemed to channel the determination that enabled Seals to ascend to Jersey City’s elite Cease Fire Unit and take so many guns off the streets. Could what they were feeling, what they were saying be speaking as loud as Seals’ actions?
Montclair State University Officer Paul Giardino, a State Campus Police Local 278 member, looked up and down Kennedy, saw everybody coming together as one and declared, “We’re not laying down. You can beat us down, but we’re still here.”
Law enforcement officers came to Jersey City first and foremost to pay tribute to Seals, honor his family and console their sisters and brothers of the Jersey City Police Officers Benevolent Association (POBA). But with yet another heinous affront to the rule of law and the magnitude of this line-of-duty death, they needed time to heal their wounds.
Around the corner from St. Aedan’s Church, where U.S. Attorney General William Barr joined Governor Murphy, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and PBA President Pat Colligan and Executive Vice President Marc Kovar attended the funeral Mass, a mass of officers gathered to console one another. A village hubbed by the NJSPBA Special Services trailer at the center of nearly a dozen other similar canteens created a respite where sentiments like this from Local 45 President George Alexiou echoed.
“I see everybody here and it made us feel…I feel stronger,” Alexiou explained. “Everybody has everybody’s back here, so it’s like, ‘Hey, you know what? You think you’re tough shooting a cop in the head and everything like that.’ Well, we come back and we come back harder.”
Or as Port Authority Local 116 member Cesar Morales, who managed operations for his group’s canteen, confirmed: “We’re 11,000 from all over the country coming here today. That shows we’ll never, never be stopped.”
To never be stopped, to never stop, to keep coming back harder, every law enforcement officer in New Jersey only needs to follow in the footsteps of Detective Joseph Seals, 18-year New Jersey law enforcement officer, devoted husband to his beloved Laura and relentless father to Hailey, Adrian, Ethan, Isabel and Ivanna.
General Grewal embraced the opportunity to perpetuate Seals’ legacy not long after the funeral. He was speaking at the graduation of 21 Jersey City officers from the academy. Every one of these recruits probably would have requested Seals to be their Field Training Officer for as Jersey City POBA President Carmine Disbrow noted of his former partner, “His reputation as an FTO was so strong that every rookie wanted to be trained by him.”
The AG gave these rookies a little dose of what they might have heard from Seals.
“I told them, ‘We’re better because we stand up,’” General Grewal shared. “It’s incumbent upon all of us to stand tall for the family and for all those officers who were there that day, because if not for Joseph and all of them, it would have been much worse. They deserved to stand tall that day and all days.”
Disbrow echoed the words so many used to describe Seals. On occasions like this, words of praise always come forward. “But with Joe, it’s all true,” he confirmed.
Seals came on with Jersey City in 2006 after five years working for Hudson County Corrections and being a member of Hudson County Corrections Officers Local 109. Serving Jersey City’s South District, one of the busiest police precincts in the state, he quickly established an affinity for taking guns off the street, a prowess that made him a natural for the Cease Fire Unit charged with investigating non-fatal shootings.
His innate ability was defined in a heroic response on Christmas Eve 2008 when Seals and his partner climbed a fire escape, broke a window and saved a woman who was being sexually assaulted in her home. Disbrow saw Seals do things on the job that he said just couldn’t be taught.
“He probably had the best instincts of any cop I ever worked with,” Disbrow observed. “We could be driving down the street going 50 or 60 miles per hour, and he would see a car and know immediately if that car was stolen. And 90 percent of the time he was right.”
Perhaps such instincts led Seals to question the U-Haul truck he saw when reportedly going to meet an informant in the cemetery that turned out to be linked to a homicide in Bayonne. He did what he would always do on that day, moving toward the vehicle when the two criminals came out from behind and shot him in the back of the head. The day that ended with the murder of three citizens inside a kosher market will be remembered for Seals and JCPD officers relentlessly running toward danger that, as the AG noted, kept a tragedy from being much worse.
Disbrow confided that Seals was noted for his propensity to run into the fray.
“When the call for backup went out, he was always one of the first guys at the scene,” Disbrow continued. “He never gave less than 100 percent. He never had an off day. Whether he was tired or had worked a double shift, he gave an outstanding effort every single day he came to work.”
The magnitude of Joseph Seals being lost in the line of duty can never fully be measured. Suffice to say it touched everybody, not just every law enforcement officer. To feel the pall cast over the day of the funeral by more than just the freezing rain, observe the image of Colligan and Kovar on page 43. Suffice to say, it’s not hard to feel the angst and the freezing rain.
Walking up and down Kennedy Boulevard, seeing law enforcement officers standing shoulder to shoulder, virtually immune to the freezing rain, reinforced that the we’re-all-in-this togetherness is the best way to quell the angst. The inspiration of this turnout only began with what radiated from that long blue line.
“This just reminds you that this is more than one police department. It’s the entire country,” observed North Plainfield Local 85 member Jordan Rogers, apparently unfazed by the weather. “It all starts with your heart. If it’s in your heart to do this, you can do whatever you want. Because if we don’t do it, then it’s not worth it.”
What made it worth standing in the freezing rain? In addition to the desire to honor Seals and his family, the extent of the line made a long-lasting statement about the resiliency of law enforcement.
“Definitely put the pride back in the thin blue line,” acknowledged Local 278 member Andrew Lerner of the Montclair State Campus Police. “It’s always been there, but today it stands a little thicker. That’s the line that we all serve and are sworn to protect.”
Officers who attended the funeral found warmth amid all the chilling emotion inside the canteen village and plenty of good food as well. The dirty water dogs served at the PBA trailer have become a staple of these settings, and for the funeral and the wake the day before, it fortified as much of a happy place as there could be.
At the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society canteen, officers were treated to 2,000 cups of clam chowder that Legal Sea Foods donated. On top of that, Boston grilled steaks and chicken. Their participation was spawned when so many other unions and organizations served up similarly in response to the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
Boston Police Detectives Superior Vice President Mike Talbot explained how seeing the response in Boston led his union to purchase a trailer and pay it forward. He and his members were bringing Boston Strong to Jersey City.
“It’s ‘Police Strong,’” he upgraded. “The biggest gang in this town is right here.”
The long blue line witnessed an equally emotional funeral procession that crescendoed when Ethan Seals walked down Kennedy Boulevard wearing his father’s hat. “I think we all wanted to break down when we saw that,” General Grewal said.
Leading the way were approximately 300 members of a combined pipes and drums band. Among them was NJ Transit Local 304 member Charlie Russell, his department’s drum major. From his perspective, Russell was taken with how quiet it became when the procession approached the church. “Present arms” seemed to last forever, and Russell later conveyed how much it meant to be here.
“People were just being respectful, watching us come by,” he described. “You see it on TV, but I’ve never seen anything like this. It just makes you feel like you want to continue to go out and do the job in his memory and the memory of everybody else.”
Bloomfield Local 32 member Tonya Frizelle was on her way out from the canteen to resume a post on Kennedy after the funeral service. She admitted being moved by the sense of love and support that permeated Jersey City on this day. And then she considered how best to continue to honor Detective Seals and the thin blue line that gathered for him.
“Pay attention to the legacies and the stories that are left behind, good, bad, or indifferent,” she urged. “Because we never know if this day is going to be our last day.”
A fitting epilogue to all of this came a week later when the attorney general was invited by community leaders to visit the kosher market. Next door is a Yeshiva, and when Grewal was at the market with NJ State Police Colonel Patrick Callahan, they noticed a group of students peering out their schoolroom window overlooking the store. They found their way to schoolroom and were greeted with a thundering applause from the kids.
“I think they saw the colonel in full uniform and were clapping for that and those who rescued them,” General Grewal reported. “They were dozens of tiny miracles cheering for first responders. Anyone who is down in this moment should remember, that if not for all of you in law enforcement, we would not have these little miracles.”