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Eric Jackson's Crime Solution has a Problem of its Own

Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson has a problem.

Under considerable pressure by citizens to say something and do something in response to a severe uptick in violent crime in Trenton over the summer months, and facing criticism for being mostly silent and invisible during the weeks when frequent shootings were wounding and killing people at a frantic pace, Mayor Jackson convened a press conference on Tuesday morning “to announce a new plan for confronting the deadly gun violence that spiked within Trenton in recent weeks,” in the words of a press account of the event.

In the previous post in this space, I described the high expectations for this “plan” that the Mayor and his Administration created. In the runup to the press conference, Mr. Jackson told Trentonians “In lieu of just coming out and saying what we the city are doing to combat this spike in violence — specifically shootings — I’m going to take a different approach. I need to come with something that I think will help create a systemic change.”

I also described how I feel that Mr. Jackson, and the other public officials who attended and spoke at Tuesday’s event, fell far short of that marker in the proposals they outlined to the press. I noted on Wednesday, 24 hours after the event, the City’s website contained no reference to any proposals that were discussed and any actions to be implemented. As of this morning, now 72 hours after the event, there is still nothing on any page of the City’s website talking about any such “different approach” or any proposal that “will help create a systemic change.”

This is bad enough on its own. After weeks of steadily escalating crime on Trenton’s streets – violence that continues seemingly unabated this week, as we read of yet another young man seriously wounded by multiple gunshots this past Wednesday evening – Jackson delivered far less than what he promised. Trentonians were disappointed, and those other public officials who showed up to voice their solidarity with Trenton’s mayor and its people must also feel disappointed and embarrassed by their support of a “plan” that offered very little more substantial than Jackson’s pledge that “There is no option we are not going to look at” to fight an intolerable situation.

This is bad enough, but Eric Jackson has another problem.

As one might expect, the entity at the leading edge of confronting Trenton’s crime problems head on, day in and day out, is the city’s Police Department. What little detail and few proposals we heard on Tuesday involved TPD. Police Director Ernest Parrey described how his immediate plan for confronting the upsurge in violence involved a tactical effort to concentrate on a half-dozen areas in the City, to “light those areas up” in order to suppress criminal activity in those areas.

Mr. Parrey also announced an outreach effort to local communities, starting with, as Greg Wright reported in the Times, “engaging children in schools to have conversations about the perception of officers amongst community members, saying police and the community need to be on the same team. ‘It’s not us and them, [Parrey] said. ‘It’s us.’”

This outreach would further one of the few main goals announced by Jackson and “nearly every speaker” at the event. And that was,

“calling for a cultural shift within the communities where citizens see crimes occur but don’t report them.

“On Sunday, 19-year-old Lance Beckett was shot several times in broad daylight. Witnesses say that the shooter then stomped on his head. Jackson pointed out how there were witnesses, yet nobody called police.

“‘Take back our streets,’ State Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) said. ‘Say something if you see something.’

“Officials acknowledged that cultural shifts are difficult and slow to develop, which is why they were not without their own solutions.”

And that’s the problem that Eric Jackson has: the main “solution” he and the other officials offered has its own major problem.

And that problem is the Trenton Police Department.

The very same day, mere hours afterward, that Mr. Jackson and all the “bevy of officials” spoke so emphatically of the need to fight Trenton’s endemic violence, relying largely on the Trenton Police Department to bear the initial heavy load of that fight, the news broke that members of the Department were under investigation by both TPD Internal Affairs and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office (MCPO) for what, from initial reports, seemed could turn into a major sex scandal involving at least one and possibly several more serving officers. Several press accounts, including incredibly unprofessional and needlessly salacious reporting by the Trentonian’s David Foster, alleged on-duty sexual indiscretions with an accused prostitute at a Police Department facility.

The initial reports were shocking enough, and turned sadly tragic when the officer at the center of the investigation, a 22-year veteran of the Department and the specific subject of what should be career-ending reports by Mr. Foster, took his own life on Wednesday. His family and colleagues in the Department grieve this week, and the Trenton Police Department now faces what is likely to be intense scrutiny and further investigation.

And that’s a big problem for Mr. Jackson’s proposed response to Trenton’s criminal activity.

First off, as described in the more responsible reportage in the Times, the MCPO investigation began last week upon the arrest of the alleged prostitute. In other words, the investigation was well under way days before the Mayor’s press conference, which stressed police department outreach “engaging children in schools” and appealed to community members not to remain silent about crimes of which they had knowledge, but to reach out to the police.

How in the world did Mr. Jackson go ahead with those parts of his proposal? Did he know that a major sex scandal in his police department was about to burst in the open? If he knew, I believe it was a major failure of judgment on his part to have spoken as he did, when he did. And it was an embarrassment to all of the other officials, such as Senator Shirley Turner, to have spoken so extensively and warmly of TPD as they did, when they no doubt had no inkling of the pending scandal.If I were an official such as Senator Turner, I would frankly be livid at Mayor Jackson for being corralled to show up at a supposedly important event like Tuesday’s, speak in solidarity with Trenton’s citizens and public safety departments, and then see that department blow up later that day.

If Mr. Jackson, on the other hand, did not know about the investigation under way, then Director Parrey owes him and the public some major explanation about that major breakdown in communication.If the Director did not tell his boss about the storm about to break, and allowed him to make a fool of himself on Tuesday morning, we need to know why.

This scandal couldn’t come at a worse time for Mr. Jackson’s already thin “plan,” and will likely leave it in tatters. To the extent he had any strategic objectives to push this week, the Mayor’s proposals leaned heavily on an appeal to Trenton’s citizens to end a culture of silence in the presence and knowledge of criminal activity they either witness or have knowledge of. That appeal – both implicitly and explicitly -  is addressed to the public, asking them to open up to the police about what they know. That appeal is a much harder sell in the wake of this scandal.

It may be weeks or months, if ever, before we find out how many officers were involved in this scandal, and how much on-duty, on-city-premises indiscretion is involved. Even if there end up being no officers other than the one at the center of attention this week who were personally involved, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that there may have been some in the department who knew about what happened, and said nothing. If more than one officer was involved, and it’s revealed that this happened more often or repeatedly, it’s likely than even more people knew, and said nothing.

How can the Mayor and his Administration possibly appeal to the public to tell the police what they see on the streets if the public knows that the police hide behind their own “blue wall of silence?”

Even further, the appeal to the public made of Tuesday also relies on an implicit pledge to them that whatever they tell the police and other officials will be held in strictest confidence and confidentiality by law enforcement, not least to protect them from intimidation and retaliation. This scandal, and other recent history, renders that implicit pledge rather hollow.

Earlier this month, former Mercer Sheriff’s officer Christopher McKenna was sentenced to two years of  probation after being convicted this May of illegally leaking last year confidential records of a minor who was involved in a officer-related Trenton police shooting last year. That leaked information – which, since it concerned a 14-year-old, should have been legally sealed – was published, as it turns out, in the Trentonian.

The information in David Foster’s Trentonian reportage this week, highly detailed information of a confidential investigation in progress, could only have been leaked by someone internal to either the Trenton PD or the Mercer Prosecutor’s Office. Regardless of the source, the Trentonian – again – irresponsibly published the information with far too much unnecessary detail.

Both of these occasions send a message to the community far stronger than the one delivered on Tuesday by Mayor Jackson, Director Parrey, Senator Turner, and the others.

These officials are telling the people, “Come to the police. Tell us what you see and what you know. We will keep your information confidential, and we will keep witnesses safe.”

What the people have are perceptions that there are police who themselves keep quiet about improper activities among their own; that law enforcement on several levels in Mercer County who feel free to betray confidences and their oaths, releasing closely-held material when it suits their own purposes and agendas, whatever they may be; and that there is at least one local media outlet that does not hesitate to inappropriately and unprofessionally publish that material.

Which will have the bigger impact on most Trentonians: the earnest but empty words spoken by Mayor Jackson and the others on Tuesday? Or the actions of Mercer law enforcement and corrupt media?

I think I know the answer, and so do you. And that’s why Mayor Jackson has a problem. And that’s why we all have a problem.

As Wednesday night’s shooting suggests, the bad guys have not yet been impressed by Mayor Jackson’s “bold” proposals. I believe, both because of its lightweight, inadequate ideas and because of the serious internal weaknesses of local police as revealed most recently by this week’s scandal, the Mayor’s and Police Director’s initiative will quickly sink without a ripple, as Tony Mack’s Comprehensive Crime Initiative also did four years ago.

Too bad for all of us!

For my own part, I am disgusted by the Trentonian’s reporting this week. For the last several years, I have been among their roster of Community Blogs directing readers to this space. Although it is a very limited and indirect association, it is one I can no longer stomach. This morning I sent an email to the Trentonian, asking its “editors” – a very loose term, as this week demonstrates – to strike my name and blog from their roster. Good Luck and Good Riddance to them.

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