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Trenton plagued by gun violence

Homicides in the city have spiked with police staffing at its lowest level in recent memory.

TRENTON - New Jersey's capital city, its gold-domed Statehouse glistening near the Delaware River, has been described as "a shooting range" and "a war zone" by the state's top prosecutor.

Now federal, state, and local officials are stepping in, trying to stanch a surge of gun violence that has jarred a once-booming industrial town - briefly the capital of the United States - that in recent decades has been plagued with crime, poverty, and corruption.

In a city of nearly 85,000 people, 30 have died in homicides this year, and 150 have been shot. Twenty-six of the killings were committed with guns. Two were classified as justifiable police homicide. The city is on track to surpass its deadliest year on record, 2005, when 35 people were killed.

"I've seen a lot, and the way they're gunning people down right now, it's totally out of control," said City Council President George Muschal, a retired city police officer.

The increase comes two years after Trenton laid off 105 police officers and demoted 27 because of budget woes. With 241 officers, the department is at the lowest staffing level anyone can remember, Police Director Ralph Rivera Jr. said.

Attempts to help Trenton financially have been complicated by Mayor Tony Mack.

Mack was indicted in December 2012 on federal corruption charges, accused of agreeing to a $119,000 bribery scheme. His stewardship has been plagued by scandal, with accusations that he abused the city payroll and staffed government with his friends, some of whom had to resign after their criminal records were exposed. Mack has rebuffed calls to resign and is scheduled to go to trial in January.

Though everyone agrees Trenton needs help, few, if any, want to be publicly associated with Mack. When Mack asked Gov. Christie this month for an additional $10 million to help hire 75 police officers, Christie said he was concerned about the violence and asked acting Attorney General John Hoffman to come up with a solution.

"I have no response to anything the indicted mayor of Trenton has to say," Christie told reporters at a recent news conference.

"If Tony would leave tomorrow, we'd receive funding," Muschal said. "But you're not going to give it to somebody that's stealing, that's under federal indictment."

Mack's office said he was unavailable for comment.

Asked about Mack's involvement in the new effort, Hoffman did not mention the mayor directly, saying the initiative was a "law enforcement" effort.

Officials will send state troopers to patrol the streets, aggressively pursue felons, and ensure that prosecutors ask for no less than a 31/2-year sentence for illegal gun possession, the highest minimum penalty for the crime.

"Troopers will patrol the most violent areas of the city, providing a direct visible deterrent to open-air drug-dealing and wanton violence," Hoffman said at a news conference Thursday.

New Jersey has some of the nation's toughest gun laws, and dozens of bills have been introduced to strengthen them since the Newtown, Conn., school shooting in December. Christie has signed 11 into law, although on Friday, he vetoed three of the toughest measures. They included a ban on .50-caliber rifles and an overhaul to the state's gun-permitting system.

He also vetoed and sent back to the Legislature a bill that would have required law enforcement agencies to report data on seized guns to a federal database. Christie asked for small tweaks to the bill, saying part of it violated a federal law and conflicted with current practices.

Many of the illegal guns in Trenton and around New Jersey come from out of state. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, only about 20 percent of the firearms seized in 2012 originated in New Jersey.

"They're coming from all over. They're coming from out of state," Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph L. Bocchini Jr. said. "They're coming from homes that have been burglarized and weapons stolen. Right across the Delaware River from Trenton is Pennsylvania. It's easier to buy a handgun in Pennsylvania and bring it back to New Jersey."

State troopers have patrolled Trenton streets before, but Hoffman and State Police Col. Rick Fuentes said the patrols were now urgently needed to stop the violence.

Agencies on Thursday morning arrested about a dozen fugitives and seized an illegal gun and marijuana. The same day, Alex Rivera stood across from yellow police tape that blocked off the street where two Trenton officers were shot while dropping off a woman who said her ex-boyfriend had broken into her house and assaulted her. The ex-boyfriend remained at the house and fired at the officers when they got out of their car. Both were hospitalized, one in critical condition. Police killed the ex-boyfriend.

"Trenton is worse," Rivera said. "It's not getting any better."