Murders awaken Trenton/Ewing area to gang problem

In the past week, gang-related violence in Trenton and the surrounding Mercer County community has opened disbelieving eyes to the reality of the gang situation in the area.

On March 28, Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer, Mercer County executive Brian Hughes, Trenton police director Joseph Santiago and Mercer County Sheriff Kevin Larkin convened at the mayor’s office and held a press conference to address the escalating gang problems in the city.

A news release from the mayor’s office read, “The county and city officials agreed to ratchet up all efforts to go after guns, gangs and crime, in a stronger, more focused and collaborative effort.

The officials came away from the meeting resolved to pull together resources, manpower and intelligence, all in an effort to reduce the amount of crime on the streets, increase the amount of time served by criminals arrested and increase the information that each agency holds on crime and criminals.”

The increased attention political officials and law enforcement are paying to gang-related activity is in response to recent gang-related violence in Trenton, including homicides committed on March 27. All three homicides, which have possible links to gang-related activity, are under investigation.

Citizens protested to the shootings by marching in the streets of Trenton, calling the city officials to action. According to a March 27 article in The Times of Trenton, approximately 150 people participated in the demonstration condemning the growing gang problem.

Jason Smith, freshman psychology major and Trenton resident, expressed concern over the incidents that have occurred over the past couple weeks.

“I am not at all comfortable with the recent (incidents) in the Trenton area,” Smith said. “I have never felt 100 percent (safe) walking the streets at night, but now that feeling has escalated. There used to be a saying, ‘if you don’t bother them they won’t bother you,’ but I don’t know how much truth that statement holds any more.”

Det. Sgt. Pedro Medina from the Office of Community Affairs at the Trenton Police Department identified many steps that his department has taken to make the streets safer.

“Our gang intelligence unit has been successful in identifying different gangs we have (in Trenton) and its members,” Medina said. “We have been taking an aggressive and proactive approach.”

Medina, who graduated from the College in 1982, said the department concentrates on combating the drug and arms issues associated with the increased gang activity in the Trenton area. According to Medina, drug wars among different gangs have occurred for control over territories and the distribution of drugs.

Medina said his department confiscates approximately 28 to 30 weapons each month. He said the department has also focused on the number of guns on the streets.

“We have been very successful in executing numerous search warrants, arrests and confiscating drugs and arms,” he said.

Medina said that in conjunction with the Mercer County prosecutor’s office, his department is working on tougher sentencing for criminals to keep repeat offenders off the streets.

James Lytle, superintendent of Trenton Public Schools, recognized parental as well as communal concerns about the recent crimes and expressed concern for the community.

“Schools are safe havens, but that doesn’t mean that I and all of the district employees don’t share responsibility for making the city a safer place,” Lytle said.

“Trenton is fortunate to have strong collaboration among elected officials, school district leadership, the police department, juvenile justice agencies and others concerned with child welfare. We’re at a point where the community on the whole is going to have to accept responsibility for community safety.”

Danielle Spezzacatena, senior sociology and elementary education major, is currently completing her student teaching semester in a fourth grade classroom in Trenton. She said the reality of the gang-related violence has affected the students in her classroom.

“It’s scary to see how close to home this is for my kids,” she said. “We had a discussion a couple of weeks ago about gangs and different ways to say no to gang members. The kids really understood the seriousness of it and seemed genuinely scared.”

According to Ron Holvey, principal investigator in the Special Investigation Division at the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the issue of gang-related violence is not new to the area. Gang-related activity has been evident in the prison system for the past 10 years, he said. He added though that it has received more attention as the number of incidents escalates.

“There is absolutely a marked rise in gang-related violence all over Mercer County,” he said. “There’s no question about it. I’m glad to see it’s finally receiving the attention it demands by law enforcement.”

According to Holvey, gang violence has risen not only in Mercer County but all over the state as well. Gangs are not only an “urban issue,” he said, because “the suburbs are even susceptible to gangs.”

According to Det. Sgt. John Stemler of the Criminal Investigations Bureau in the Ewing Township Police Department, gang-related violence is present in Ewing as well.

“The police administration recognizes that there is a growing gang problem in our area,” Stemler said. “They will commit the full efforts of the Ewing Police Department to combat this problem.”

According to Stemler, his department works closely with other Mercer County law enforcement agencies to investigate gang-related crimes.

Constant communication between the Trenton Police Department’s Gang Intelligence Unit and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Gang Unit encourages the sharing of information and collaboration.

Stemler also pointed to community outreach programs orchestrated by the School Resource Officers. Recently, teachers and staff received gang awareness training at Fisher Middle School and Ewing High School.

“It seems the only thing we can do is combat the problem within our means as law enforcement officers and for the community to try and provide alternative activities and opportunities to young kids other than gangs,” Stemler said.

Campus Police is also involved with the Mercer County Gang Task Force in representing the College. Det. Sgt. James Lopez called it an “information sharing” on the county and state level that keeps Mercer law enforcement agencies up-to-date with the most current information.

Lopez pointed out that the gang issue exists nationwide. “It’s much greater than the city of Trenton,” he said.

Matt Golden, assistant director of Public Information in the Office of College and Community Relations, said that as always, student and faculty safety is taken seriously, especially when increased crime is a concern.

“We have great confidence in Trenton Police, Ewing Police and Campus Police,” Golden said.

Last week in the mayor’s press release, Palmer identified steps his administration and agencies all over the county will take to fight gang violence. Many of these include tougher judiciary action, such as strengthened bails, longer sentences and harsher punishments.

The current situation in Trenton with escalating gang violence has alarmed many families located in the city. Smith, who has lived in Trenton for 17 years, said his family considers moving out of the city because of the violence.

Smith questions the response of officials to the gang problem in Trenton.

“This gang situation has been out of hand for at least two to three years now and prior to this year there were politicians like (Palmer) saying things like ‘gangs do not exist in Trenton,'” Smith said. “Now all of a sudden politicians want to recognize what has been under their noses for years.”

In addition to concentrating on gang-related investigations, the Ewing Police Department has been involved in gang recognition training and recently ordered the use of two-man patrol cars, specifically at night.

“Parents and teachers must also be educated of the different signals that may indicate that their children or students may be associated with or in a street gang,” Stemler said.

“In fourth grade, we used to be worried about how to get on the better kickball team in gym class,” Spezzacatena said. “Unfortunately, the innocence of the urban youth is gone. They must face serious issues that are difficult even for an adult.”

Holvey, who said that the Department of Corrections has been working with the Trenton Police and Mercer County prosecutor’s office for many years now in sending and receiving gang-related information, believes that the gang issue is a social issue.

“The thing most people lose focus of is that the gang problem is not a problem remedied by law enforcement,” he said. “It’s a problem that must be fixed in the home … there’s no short-term fix.”