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Trenton has what it takes to reduce gun violence, they just aren’t using it


Written by: James Reslier-Wells & Mariana Braz

Operation CeaseFire IlustrationLess than six weeks into 2013, Trenton saw its fourth homicide. On February 11, 16-year-old Marcus Hunter was shot and killed in midday as he ran down Beakes Street near the Donnelly Homes housing complex. The motive and culprit are still unknown.

The first Trenton homicide victim of 2013 was 54-year-old James Threadgill. According to reporting by Alex Zdan of The Times of Trenton, he died on New Year’s day following a shooting outside Passions Nightclub on East State Street, just a mile from Mercer’s downtown campus.

The day before, another man was shot in the leg on Oakland Street. Three more men were shot on Emory Avenue just hours after Threadgill died. They all survived, as did the man who was shot in the face in North Trenton that day and another shot three times in Chambersburg, also on January 1.

The shooting of Marcus Hunter comes directly after what appeared to be a wildly successful Trenton gun buyback program held the last weekend of January. The program, which offered as much as $250 for a single weapon, pulled 2,603 firearms off the streets, according to official police reports.

The buyback was so successful that organizers ran out of money to pay people and had to issue payment vouchers which were redeemable the following weekend. Overall, more than $324,000 was paid out according to press releases from the office of Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa.

Chiesa said in a speech given during the buyback that it was part of an overall plan to reduce gun violence throughout the state. Trenton’s buyback was, in part, inspired by an earlier buyback in Camden, NJ, that also proved successful. When reached for comment, the Attorney General’s spokesperson told The VOICE, “We don’t talk to student reporters.”

State Senator Shirley Turner, who encouraged the Attorney General to conduct the Trenton buyback after seeing how well the Camden buyback went, told The VOICE in a phone interview that the buyback “was an amazing, unbelievable success. No one in their wildest dreams would have imagined we’d recover over 2600 guns.” She went on to say, “We even got a rocket launcher–that blew everyone’s mind, that we would get a rocket launcher.”

According to the official press release, “Among other weapons, the Mercer buyback brought in more than 100 sawed-off shotguns, nearly 1,000 handguns, four Tech-9 semi-automatic pistols, two Hi-Point semi-automatic assault rifles like those used in the Columbine shootings, a shotgun disguised as a nightstick, and an antique Uzi. Also sold back during the event were: two Thompson submachine guns, an Egyptian fully-automatic assault rifle, a World War II vintage Luger pistol, at least three M-1 carbine rifles, a 12-gauge shotgun with a ‘streetsweeper’ drum cartridge capable of holding 20 rounds of ammunition, a shoulder-firing rocket launcher and a tear-gas/riot gun.”

It is unclear, however, precisely how much impact programs like the buyback have on actual crime rates.

According to an International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) report from October 2011 titled, “Reducing Gun Violence In Our Communities,” buyback programs are usually ineffective. “Despite their popularity, research has shown no evidence that buyback programs are getting crime guns off the street.”

ceasefire data for TrentonOne program that did seem to have a noticeable effect, however, was a State Police initiative known as Operation CeaseFire. It was initially run in Essex County during 2005. Given its effectiveness in reducing gun violence in Newark and Irvington, authorities expanded the operation to include Mercer County in 2006.

According to the “Instruction on Gang Violence Prevention & CeaseFire Pilot Program” published on the New Jersey State League of Municipalities website,  “Assembly members Conaway and Watson-Coleman Appropriates $4,000,000 to the Division of Family Health Services in the Department of Health to initiate a NJ CeaseFire Pilot Program in Newark, Camden and Trenton.”

The Trenton Prevention Policy Board website states that  “Trenton/Ewing began its own Operation Ceasefire in 2008, in collaboration with Isles.” The Operation was eliminated after two years when its funding was excluded from the 2010 fiscal year.

Statistics obtained from the Trenton Police Department show that, during its heyday, Trenton’s Operation Ceasefire, seemed to have a direct affect on gun-related crime. The number of firearms recovered from the streets, and the number of aggravated assaults with a firearm dipped sharply. (See fig. 1)

Operation Ceasefire combined law enforcement initiatives supplemented by civilian efforts. The enforcement arm was comprised of four Shooting Response Teams of four officers each from the Trenton Police Department and other Mercer County municipalities. These teams were supported by an intelligence team of three Trenton Police officers and one liaison from the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.

Detective Sergeant Matthew Kemp of the West Windsor Police Department, who took part in Operation CeaseFire as a member of a shooting response team, told The VOICE, “[The effort] was Mercer County-wide. However, the majority of the shootings that we investigated were in the city of Trenton; that still remains the concern.”

Indeed, statistics show Trenton remains one of the most dangerous cities to live in in the United States. Neighborhood Scout, a popular data aggregation website, ranked Trenton #29 out of the Top 100 Most Dangerous Cities in the US. Their data comes from  “cities in America with 25,000 or more people,” and is “based on the number of violent crimes per 1,000 residents. Violent crimes include homicide, forcible rape, armed robbery, and aggravated assault. Data used for this research are 1) the number of violent crimes reported to the FBI to have occurred in each city, and 2) the population of each city.”

Uniform Crime Reports for 2012 show that crime in Trenton rose 12 percent in the first seven months of last year. Much of the crime involved petty and property crimes such as auto theft. The spike comes at a time when budget cuts caused the police force in the city to be reduced by 30 percent. Budget cuts had already caused Operation CeaseFire to discontinue its core components; though the name was later applied to a different initiative, the most effective aspects of the original Operation Ceasefire were dismantled in 2010.

In an interview with The VOICE Lt. Stephen Jones of the NJ State Police said that the original Trenton Operation Ceasefire  was “more like CSI,” they ran down every single lead. “But we now have weapons trafficking and street gang units working to reduce gun violence around the state.”

Indeed, statewide initiatives are in place, but the Unified Crime Reports show even at the state level crime rose by three percent in New Jersey last year, the sharpest increase since the Great Recession in 2008.

While gun buybacks are popular and may serve to reduce some accidental deaths, their efficacy has not be proven. Evidence suggests that comprehensive programs such as Operation Ceasefire, as it was originally executed, do, in fact, reduce gun related crime.

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