Facebook and Instagram are the new tenement walls, with new, more violent youth gangs in New Jersey’s urban areas using social media to challenge rivals, intimidate witnesses, show off weapons and even conduct livestream shootings.
Law enforcement and juvenile justice officials recounted for members of the State Commission of Investigation frightening stories of children as young as eight involved in neighborhood-based gangs whose members have shot and murdered other youths. They prey on the streets and near schools simply to prove their toughness. Innocent bystanders in homes, at backyard parties and even a school crossing guard have been injured when caught in the crossfire of enemy gangs.
“This is just strictly violence,” Stephanie Treadwell, a retired Newark Police detective who worked with juveniles, testified during a hearing Wednesday in Trenton on the issue. “They have become desensitized to human life. They are just taking people out and it means absolutely nothing … Sometimes if they’re given an order to shoot someone, they’ll do it live (on social media) and they make sure that they say, ‘OK, I did what you told me to do.’ They’re geared more toward Instagram. The videos only stay there for 24 hours.”
Lee Seglem, executive director of the SCI, said the goal of the hearing was to learn more about this relatively new threat, which is “severely testing the system’s ability to respond,” and to help the commission draft a report recommending ways for state and local officials to better deal with it.
Teens and pre-teens
“Communities across this state are confronting a resurgence of street violence — but not at the hands of adult gang-bangers in known and readily identifiable groups like the Bloods or the Crips,” Seglem said. While those gangs are still prevalent, the new threat is from youths as young as in middle school. “Children who are picking up guns to kill and maim each other and anyone else who might get in the way. This is the dark and ruthless world of neighborhood gangs and juvenile gun violence … Where teens and pre-teens almost routinely settle adolescent tussles with deadly weapons. Where social media serve as electronic billboards for distinctly anti-social activity — used to pick fights, display weaponry, recruit new members and threaten police.”
Edwin Torres, an investigator with the SCI, said that because these young gangs are neighborhood-based, they don’t have the kind of leadership hierarchy of the better-known gangs and so they are harder to track and crack. And because the members are so young, they wind up being quickly released when they are arrested and they go back into the community and reoffend.
“Zero consequences, they have no consequences for their actions,” said Christopher Taggart, a retired Pleasantville police lieutenant who now serves as an adviser to the East Coast Gang Investigators Association. “We have allowed people to make excuses for their behavior, rather than coming to terms with what they are actually doing and punishing them.”
Taggart told the story of one 16-year-old who police arrested for possessing a loaded handgun. He was released with an ankle monitoring bracelet. Two weeks later, they caught the same youth with another loaded handgun after he had simply cut the monitoring unit off. Because he was a juvenile, his penalty for getting rid of the monitoring unit was minor.
Statistics don’t capture the mayhem
While crime rates overall are down across the state, Torres said these statistics do not capture the mayhem caused by these youth gangs that are largely found in urban areas but have begun branching into suburbs and rural New Jersey, as well. Between 2015 and 2017, there was a 26 percent increase in the number of juveniles arrested with firearms — 593 such arrests were made last year. And in Trenton, the state capital, the number of juveniles who were shot tripled during the same period, from eight in 2015 to 24 shot in 2017.
One after another, officials related incidents of youths killing one another or injuring innocent bystanders. For instance:
No trouble getting guns
Despite New Jersey’s tough gun-control laws, the youths have no trouble getting guns, ranging from .22 caliber handguns to AR-15 assault weapons, often by stealing them. In one instance in Galloway Township, a 15-year-old who was on probation used his mother’s credit card to buy online a kit to build an assault weapon; he had it delivered to a vacant apartment across the hall and retrieved it when it was left outside the door.
“Many prosecutors are frustrated they can’t keep violent juveniles off the streets,” said Marian Galietta, an SCI counsel. “Once a juvenile is released on supervision, they continue to commit offenses. It’s just kicking the can down the road … It’s not helping these youths to let them go.”
Captain Loretta Nichols of the Camden Juvenile Detention Center said that she watched as three young women placed on electronic monitoring initially for robbery, assault and weapons charges were released only to reoffend as many as a half dozen times. Eventually, at ages 16 and 17, they went on to be charged with murder.
“We have a lot of programs in place, but then they are released,” Nichols said. “Once they go back into the community, they go back into the lifestyle that is going to protect them.”
Those who testified said a breakdown in families and children left to their own devices are partly to blame for the rise in youth gangs, which have become self-perpetuating.
Some so young, their wrists too small for handcuffs
Steven Smith, a juvenile officer with the Trenton Police Department, said he has seen children as young as eight years old engaging in aggressive behavior. While the single mother is at work, the 8-year-old sees an older sibling’s actions with other gang members and that is the behavior he copies.
“Some of these kids we cannot put in handcuffs because their wrists are so small,” he said.
This gang activity is not only hurting youths, but impacting entire communities, with many people living in fear of violence for their children and themselves. That has made it difficult for police to make arrests.
“Getting cooperation from the community, overall, is fairly uncommon,” said Joseph Iacovone, a retired Atlantic City police sergeant who now works with the Atlantic County prosecutor’s office on gang-related matters. “Most citizens fear for their safety because of the acts of violence perpetrated by these juveniles.”
Programs that work
The commission did hear some examples of programs that might help prevent young people from getting involved in gang life or help them get out of it.
For instance, Gloucester Township has instituted a program designed to get help for youths and their families as soon as they first offend or before. Each week, officers have a “juvenile unit huddle” during which they discuss cases of at-risk youths. They then create an individual plan for each child that includes having the resource officer at the child’s school serve as a “mentor” and might also include counseling. Those who have committed an offense are enrolled in a six-week diversionary program, with parents required to attend at least two sessions.
“In 2010, virtually every crime category was escalating rapidly. We were in a situation where something had to change,” said Township Police Chief Harry Earle. Now, “violent crime was cut in half.”
Fred Fogg discussed the intensive programs that Youth Advocate Programs conducts for the state and in Middlesex County, working with as many as 175 juveniles a year. One program seeks to keep an offender in the community by providing him with educational supports and counseling, as well as counseling parents and even helping them find employment if that is an issue. The other is a re-entry program to help the offenders, now often adults, get housing and employment assistance and teach those who were in gangs “how to peacefully navigate conflict.” The success rates for those programs range from 73 percent to 85 percent, depending on the program and location.
“Ultimately, we want to keep kids out of the systems and invest in community-based services,” he said.
Galietta also suggested the state needs to make changes to its gang statutes to deal with these new groups. One measure (S-2057) would take a step in the right direction by increasing penalties and imposing mandatory minimum sentences for those who recruit minors into street gangs.
“It’s too difficult to use the statute effectively” to deal with the way these gangs are structured, she said.
The commission plans to issue a report examining all side of the problem and suggesting solutions at some point in the future. In the meantime, members were sobered by the seriousness of the problem.
“We are at a tipping point and we are losing a generation of kids,” said commission member Robert Burzichelli. “It’s a commentary on us as a society. We are failing. These are juveniles, but they acting like adults and they are carrying adult weapons. And they are terrorizing their own communities. It’s a complex problem that requires a true commitment from state and, like anything in the state, it requires money.”