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Gang Violence Spurs Community Dialog

Candace Braun

Educating parents on signs of pre-gang behavior, holding a community meeting with area youths, and rebuilding trust between police and immigrants in town are some potential solutions that came out of a community dialog on race relations held by the Princeton Human Services Commission on Monday.

The meeting was called in response to recent crimes that have shaken Princeton, several of which have involved African Americans attacking members of the Hispanic community, according to police. Approximately 60 members of the community were in attendance, including Princeton Regional School Board members, Borough and Township police, and members of Borough Council and Township Committee.

During a brief introduction and discussion of last month's incidents, Borough Police Lt. Dennis McManimon confirmed that police believe the bias crimes to have been caused by a group of youths who think of themselves as belonging to some type of gang. One attack, which occurred on John Street on Halloween, left a 29-year-old Hispanic victim in a coma. The victim, who was struck by a baseball bat, has remained in critical condition for close to two weeks, said Lt. McManimon.

According to the lieutenant, the Princeton youths call themselves the "Purple Street Gang," after a rap group that sings about the nationally-known gangs the Bloods and the Crips. While he doubts that there is any actual association between the local and national gangs, what it suggests is that "they think they're in a gang and they act like they're in a gang, so therefore they're a gang of some sort," he said.

He added that he believes that September's memorial ceremony for Jean Mario Israel, 19, a Princeton High School student who died after reportedly being shot by a Trenton gang member, may have triggered the recent events, since members of the group apparently banded together as a result of the service, which brought out friends and family from New York and Philadelphia.

The gang mentality seems to stem from the teens' desire to feel as though they belong to some type of group, added Lt. McManimon.

"If these kids have a craving to belong, we need to find something for them," said Casey Hegener, Township Committeewoman.

Maria Juega, chair of the Latin-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said she felt a lack of social spaces for young people could be the reason they are roaming the streets at night and getting into fights. She added that a meeting with area youths should have taken place following the death of Mr. Israel: "We need to listen to what they have to say." Claire Jacobus, president of the Friends of the Princeton Public Library, said that the library is making an effort to make teens feel welcome at its teen center, adding that while some teens don't come to the library to use the facility's resources, librarians often point them to a computer game or book that may hold their interest and discourage them from disturbing other patrons.

Several residents agreed that a youth summit may be the best way to reach teens and find out what changes they would like to see.

Poor Race Relations

Some long-time members of the community said they felt that if anything, race relations in Princeton are worse now than they were 20 years ago.

Lt. Bob Buchanan of the Township Police recalled attending the Princeton schools as a child: "There was not as much tension growing up in this town back then," he said, adding that as a Bayard Lane resident, he had many friends in the John Street neighborhood, which was the scene of much of the recent criminal activity.

Both Lt. McManimon and Lt. Buchanan agreed that a lack of parental intervention among the youths involved, some of whom are as young as 10 years old, has probably contributed to the problem.

Removing the leader, or "alpha male," could help disperse the group, said Lt. McManimon, adding that since the arrest of the two African-American males who were involved in the Halloween attacks on Hispanics there have been no further gang-related incidents in the Borough.

Some remedies for preventing further bias crimes in Princeton suggested by residents included mentoring juveniles rather than punishing them, and holding an educational forum at the library for younger children who have yet to be exposed to gangs or bias crimes.

Lance Liverman, vice chair of Human Services, announced that a forum will be held in early March, which will advise parents on how to look for pre-gang behavior in their own children. In addition, both Borough and Township Police encouraged anyone who has been a victim of, or witness to, a crime in Princeton to come forward and contact police.

"If you're a victim, please come to the police – We don't care if you're a documented [immigrant] or not, a victim is a victim," said Lt. McManimon, adding that residents can make anonymous calls to the police by calling each municipality's tip line.

In the Borough, residents may call (609) 497-4895, and (609) 688-2049 in the Township. "This is just the beginning of a sustained community dialog," said Cynthia Mendez, director of Human Services. "It's not a black or brown issue – it's a community issue."

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