TRENTON — The crumbling block where Unique “Boogie” Anderson was shot had an ominous feel just a few days after gun violence claimed his life and left 15 other people wounded.
Hardened young men sat idle while several prostitutes tried to entice motorists on the 100 block of Walnut Avenue, a block of dilapidated and abandoned homes. Walls were decorated by memorials for Anderson, 18, and others slain before him.
Lee Ingram, 57, a former drug user and dealer who became a community activist after a nephew was murdered 21 years ago, grew up a block away. He said not much has changed.
“It’s hunting season, because now everyone is out,” Ingram said late last week. “So if they’re looking for you, they know they’re going to find you. Right now it’s like a shoot-on-sight mentality. No matter where you see that person, get them. So, nobody’s safe."
Five people survived gunshot wounds from the attack at 11:30 p.m. Memorial Day that killed Anderson. Three days earlier, 10 people had been shot about a mile away as they stood in front of a liquor store and bar on Brunswick Avenue.
As of Monday, no arrests had been made in either attack, and the motives were unclear, city police said.
In the Garden State’s capital, a city of 85,000 that was an Industrial Revolution success story, the back-to-back bursts of violence on the holiday weekend brought to five the number of people killed in May and left residents shaken from front porches to City Hall to the halls of justice.
On Thursday, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito announced a new partnership to combat crime in Trenton that will rely on intelligence and analysis to identify and prosecute violent offenders including drug dealers, gang members, and serial offenders.
Although many in the city said they support the promised enhanced law enforcement presence, they also cautioned that it would not solve the problem if the root causes of the violence ― failing schools, a scarcity of jobs, scant recreation outlets for youth, and a lack of hope ― are not addressed.
“We can’t arrest our way out of the problems, and that is why economic development is so important," Mayor W. Reed Gusciora said.
“Unfortunately, it’s almost a Catch-22. We’re unlikely to get investors when the perception is that Trenton is not a safe place to do business,” he said. “We’re trying to get jobs and give some hope to the youth instead of joining a gang or selling drugs.”
Jonette Smart, 59, president of the Trenton NAACP and a member of the Capital City Community Coalition, said: “These are not random shootings. They know each other for the most part. So Trenton in itself is not a bad city. It’s a city that’s going through some complications and difficulties, and it’s a city that’s in need of not just prayer, but action.”
Partners in anti-crime
Included in the new Trenton Violent Crime Initiative are the New Jersey State Police; Trenton police; the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office; the Sheriff’s Office; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; and the FBI.
“The time to act is now, before more lives are lost,” Grewal said. “We cannot stop every shooting, but we want city residents to know that we stand with them, and will work with … all of our partners to arrest the gun-toting criminals who are bringing violence and fear to their neighborhoods.”
Trenton Police Director Sheilah Coley, who assumed her post last month, already had ordered officers who had been patrolling in cars to begin walking their beats.
“There is a big disconnect between the police and the neighbors, and we’re trying to facilitate more of an understanding between the two, that the police are there really to protect citizens, not to alienate them,” said Gusciora, who became mayor last July.
It’s worked before
Similar federal-state-local partnerships have made progress in tackling crime in Camden, Newark, and Jersey City, the officials said. In Camden and Newark, they said, crime is at 50-year lows.
“We know that partnering with state and local law enforcement works, because we’ve proven it,” Carpenito said.
A block from the Walnut Avenue shooting site, Lisa Carter, 50, sitting on the front step of her mother’s home, said the new law-enforcement partnership was needed because the city’s officers are overwhelmed and disrespected.
“It should be more police from surrounding areas that these young adults don’t know. A lot of the officers on the force went to high school with them,” said Carter, a state employee for 30 years. “When state troopers come in here, they don’t know nobody. State troopers do their job. It’s a better result in one or two hours than Trenton police do in one week."
Living with violence
Tony Boone, 67, and his friend Caesar Wilson, 59, were sipping brandy and beer on Boone’s porch and talking about young black men perpetrating violence against each other.
“Genocide, man, genocide. Our own race is taking each other out,” said Wilson, a retired cook. “But I feel safe because I protect myself. I go to the gun range every other day."
“These kids are out of order, and there’s a lot of gangs out here,” said Boone, a retired Princeton University dishwasher.
“I hear the gunshots all the time. Here, there. We’re right in the middle of the s—,” he said, keeping an eye on his twin grandsons, Kevin and Kivon, 2.
Whether Trenton’s gun-toting criminals are members of organized gangs depends on whom you ask. Gusciora said that although the criminals are not Bloods or Crips, they group themselves based on neighborhood and “are isolated to those neighborhoods.”
Ingram, the community activist, said the source of the strife is easier to explain. “It’s just personal beefs. It’s not a gang thing anymore in Trenton. People just don’t know conflict resolution,” said Ingram, who works as a NJ Transit bus driver.
Trenton is the 11th poorest of 607 U.S. cities with populations of 65,000 or more, according to U.S. government statistics.
Ingram, having spent his life in this city, can easily recite the things that he believes contribute to young people turning to violence: no movie theater, no skating rink, no Police Athletic League, rundown recreation centers, few jobs.
“There’s nothing for our children and our young people to do. There’s nothing for them to let their aggression and frustrations out. They don’t get grief counseling when their friends get killed,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that are not being done that’s producing this.”
The mayor said things are changing for the better under Gov. Phil Murphy. The city’s recreation budget has gone from $300,000 last year to $2,000,000 this year, a $150 million high school featuring vocational-education courses is set to open in the fall, and plans are in the works to tear down abandoned houses and clean up neglected neighborhoods, he said.
At-large City Councilman Jerell Blakeley said lifting Trenton and similarity struggling cities will take a series of national investments to improve schools and social services. Boosting spending only for law enforcement would be shortsighted, he said.
“We have to start looking at the culture of violence and the subculture of unemployed, undereducated and incarcerated or formerly incarcerated young black men,” said Blakeley, 31. “We really have to figure out as a country if we’re all right with a significant population of people being victims and perpetrators.”