Gang Symposium Addresses Issues Of Drugs, Denial
Gang violence in New Jersey, and Mercer County specifically, was addressed at a youth gang symposium on Friday, January 21, at Mercer County Community College, which was hosted by the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC).
New information, as well as some similar statistics and photos presented at a forum held by the New Jersey Department of Corrections in early December at John Witherspoon Middle School in Princeton, helped address the questions and concerns of school board members and officials throughout the state.
"The number one problem in our state is denial," said Lt. Edwin Torres, supervisor of the gang management unit of the state's JJC. He added that the most difficult task police face with gang issues is convincing a parent that their child is involved in gang activity.
He told his audience of more than 100 concerned community members that there is definite gang activity occurring throughout Mercer County, listing various incidents that have taken place over the last several months, with Princeton listed as the most recent town to experience gang activity, in the form of a brawl which took place on Spring Street on January 11.
Gangs create a pattern, which begins with selling drugs for money, continues with using the cash to purchase guns, and ends with violence that is often deadly, said state experts. Nearly 20 percent of all homicides in the state are gang-related. Gangs are found in every county throughout the state, and two-thirds of gang members are under the age of 17, according to a film on gang education presented by JJC.
When Princeton Borough Police Lt. Dennis McManimon was asked if an affluent community like Princeton has been targeted in recent months for money to buy drugs, he said he wasn't sure: "There could be a lot of reasons."
The lieutenant, who attended the forum on Friday along with six other Borough and Township police officials, said that there must have been a sudden demand for drugs in Princeton if gangs are coming here to supply them. He added, however, that there have been no official reports of drug problems in town recently.
But in some areas of the state, like Essex County, more than 1,200 gang-related arrests were made between 2003 and 2004. In areas like Essex and Camden counties, the most common incident of violence occurs when a group of gang members stops a pedestrian on the street and asks which gang they are associated with. If they answer wrong, they are often beaten, and sometimes shot.
In gang initiations, men are sometimes "beaten into" the gang, and women are raped by other gang members, some of whom are well over 18 years, while the victims are as young as 13. In Princeton, two robberies that took place in early January may have been part of a gang initiation, Capt. Anthony Federico pointed out at a recent Borough Council meeting, since the shoes of the victims were stolen. Would-be members of a gang are often given a list of tasks they must perform before becoming a member, which can sometimes include the requirement of being arrested, said Lt. Torres.
According to Princeton's Lt. McManimon, among the most important points discussed on Friday were the differences, or lack of differences, between official gang members, and those who are considered "wannabe" gang members.
"It dispelled the myth," said Lt. McManimon, recalling how in the recent past, local officials have tried to calm the Princeton community's concerns by saying that youth in town that are making the gang signals and noises are aspiring, rather than actual, gang members.
"It doesn't matter what they are; it matters what they think they are," said Lt. Torres on Friday. "If they say they're a 'gang banger,' you better believe it," he said, adding that the important issue to consider is that the youths are interested in gang involvement and violence, which is what should be of the upmost concern to the community.
There is no difference between a gang presence, and a gang problem, said Lt. Torres; as long as there are signs of a gang in a community, residents should be concerned.
The best thing parents can do to combat a gang problem is to be good role models, stay suspicious, and be ready to search a child's room for signs that they may be involved in dangerous activities, said Lt. Torres: "My mom kept me alive by being in my business 24/7. A lot of parents won't do that."
Another way to combat the problem is through a program called the Phoenix Gang Prevention/Intervention Project, the JJC's multi-tiered approach to address high-risk behaviors and gang involvement.
The program, which was introduced as part of Friday's symposium, involves members of the JJC's gang management unit travelling across the state to give anti-gang and anti-violence messages to youths, and using a curriculum to help treat addictive behavior patterns that lead children to join gangs.
The program is now being considered by Princeton Regional Schools, according to school board President Anne Burns; however, the Board has not officially announced plans to institute it.