State commission says violent juvenile gangs pose growing threat

Gangs and gang violence are not a new phenomenon in New Jersey. They’ve been wreaking havoc for decades. But a hearing Wednesday of the State’s Commission of Investigation suggests that a new gang threat – neighborhood-based, younger and ultraviolent – needs immediate attention.

“What we have seen with traditional gangs is the hierarchy; You have your OG’s, shot callers, sergeant-at-arms and then the soldiers that fall in between them. That can be easily shown on a flow chart, where you have the leaders,” said Lt. Christopher Taggart with the Pleasantville Police Department. “When you’re dealing with a neighborhood gang, it’s a nexus. It looks more like an atom. You have the center, or nexus, which is your neighborhood, and then everything flowing around it.”

State Commission of Investigation special agent Edwin Torres testified that some of these gangs simply are interested in establishing their reputations by violence for violence’s sake.

“In the traditional gang world, they establish their reputation through the acquisition of wealth,” he said. “The more money they make in the street gang world through the selling of drugs, the more powerful they become, and they use violence to further their business model. The neighborhood-based gangs further their reputations through the use of violence. Therefore, their violence is more random, more chaotic and wholly unpredictable.”

The commission found that between 2015 and 2017, juvenile firearms arrests went up 26 percent statewide. In Camden County alone, the number of juveniles charged with firearms offenses jumped 53 percent. And in Trenton, the number of juvenile shooting victims went up 200 percent.

“In Atlantic City, between 2014 and 2017 there were approximately 46 gang-related shootings that involved 36 juveniles,” reported retired Atlantic City Police Department Sgt. Joseph Iacovone.

Kids as young as 12, according to testimony Wednesday, using everything from .22s to semiautomatics to AK-47s. One investigator said the gangs have even weaponized social media, using it as both a way to broadcast their criminal achievements and as a way to trigger more violence by turning a dis into a drive-by.

“If you and I have an argument, or a disagreement, it stays pretty much here. But if I post something online, everyone is going to chime in on that,” added Torres. “The social pressure for our young people is so enormous for them to respond that it will result in some sort of violence on the streets. It will be answered on the streets with some sort of violence. It’s almost like pulling a cyber trigger when they post something online.”

The commission says it’ll take a full-court press – police, schools, social agencies, parents – to focus attention on this growing problem.

Law enforcement says juveniles, and gangs, and the gun violence that’s associated with them are a growing threat that needs to be addressed now before juvenile offenders become adults.