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N.J. street gangs are using younger teens, guns, and extreme violence, experts say

Violent juvenile gangs across the state are more violent than ever with easy access to guns, experts say.

Galloway Police Chief Donna Higbee, retired Atlantic City Police Sgt. Joseph Iacovone, and retired Pleasantville Lt. Christopher Taggart testify before the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation about gang violence.
Galloway Police Chief Donna Higbee, retired Atlantic City Police Sgt. Joseph Iacovone, and retired Pleasantville Lt. Christopher Taggart testify before the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation about gang violence.Read moreBarbara Boyer / Staff

Street gangs are growing at an alarming rate across the state, and the members are young, wielding guns, and taunting their enemies through social media, experts told the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation during a hearing Wednesday in Trenton.

Teens are committing murder and sometimes dying as they try to prove their loyalty to the gangs, earning respect through their willingness to commit acts of violence. These neighborhood gangs are different from larger, more organized gangs and harder to identify because they have few rules, and change structure and leadership often.

Instead of associating with well-known gangs such as the Crips, these teen gangs are organized around small communities where the members live. They seek social status through violence, and the slightest sign of disrespect can trigger a deadly response.

"It is a chaotic world where law enforcement is struggling to catch up, and it is a world where kids grow up expecting to die in violence," said Lee C. Seglem, SCI executive director.

From Atlantic City to Newark, law enforcement officials spoke of teens bringing guns to school, shooting up houses, or engaging in gun battles in public places where innocent bystanders were caught in the crossfire. Eleven experts testified about horrific situations involving the streets, courts, and juvenile detention centers. Although few statistics were quoted, all of the experts had strong anecdotal cases they shared with the commission, which is to issue a report next year.

"As we speak, communities across this state are confronting a resurgence of street violence — but not in the hands of adult gang-bangers in known and readily identifiable groups like the Bloods and Crips," Seglem said. "We are here to talk about children, children as young as 12 or 14 years old. Children who are picking up guns to kill and maim each other and anyone who might get in the way."

The dynamics of these gangs are different from older gangs whose activities often focus on drug activity that can be targeted by law enforcement, said Edwin Torres, an SCI investigator. The teens are using extreme and random violence to establish a powerful hold on smaller geographic areas, he said.

Torres said that instead of tagging buildings with graffiti, gang members use the internet to brag about their violence and taunt other gangs. The commission watched a brief slideshow of disturbing posts that included pictures of kids pointing guns. The last slide was of a young teen now dead.

Marian Galietta, another SCI investigator who had served as a prosecutor in Camden and Philadelphia, said prosecutors are frustrated that judges are ordering home monitoring of violent juveniles who should be placed in detention.

"They're just kicking the can down the road," Galietta said. The teens need intervention that can give them help before they hurt others, become adult offenders, or are killed, she explained, and laws need to be strengthened.

Trenton Juvenile Police Officer Steven Smith said that some of those arrested, as young as 8 years old, cannot be handcuffed because their wrists are so small.

The experts agreed that gang violence is on the rise, as those arrested are released and placed on pretrial supervision or probation upon conviction.

Retired Atlantic City Sgt. Joseph Iacovone said the street gangs in his city may join with gangs from nearby Pleasantville because they have a common enemy — rival gangs.

"Almost all acts of violence are with firearms," Iacovone said, noting the teens have easy access to guns that are stolen and passed around on the street. Twice, Iacovone said, gang members burglarized the homes of Atlantic City police officers to steal their guns. The teens have also found online sources to buy guns.

Galloway Police Chief Donna Higbee displayed a picture of an assault rifle that was purchased as a kit by a juvenile who was on probation. The youth used his mother's credit card and a neighbor's address. When the mother saw her son stuff his backpack with the gun and hollow-point bullets, she called police, Higbee said.

Other gang incidents included a crossing guard caught in crossfire, a woman shot while at a birthday party, a gun battle on the 47th floor of the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, and an exchange of shots from cars on the Atlantic City Expressway.

From 2015 through 2017, there was a 26 percent increase of juveniles charged with gun offenses statewide. In Camden County, during the same time period, there was a 53 percent increase in juvenile arrests for gun possession. And in Trenton, there was a 200 percent increase in juvenile shooting victims.

Capt. Loretta Nichols of the Camden Juvenile Detention Center said she sees the same teens return to the system with escalating behavior. If 40 males are arrested, she said, 40 will return. It's slightly less for girls, but not considerably less, she said.

Of the 45 detainees in the juvenile center this week, Nichols said, 25 were identified as gang members.

"We have a lot of females tell us they are not gang members, but they are owned by gang members," Nichols said, adding that the girls are sometimes forced into the sex trade.