Letter to the Editor by Algernon Ward Jr. – President, Community In Action Civic Association
I Dream of Safe Place to Live – Trenton, New Jersey.
It was a dream come true. Walking down my block on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard were two young Trenton Police Officers on foot patrol ! A dream that our community had pleaded for since the first term of the Palmer Administration nearly 30 years ago. I could hardly contain myself as I pumped their arms up and down thanking them over and over for doing this. They were polite and slightly amused reacting to my enthusiasm as if it were no big deal. They had no idea how big a deal it really was to us. Our “Community In Action Crime Watch and Civic Association” had formed as an outgrowth of the famous “Lawnchair Crusade Sit-Outs” where community members literally took matters into their own hands and sat in lawnchairs on the most egregious locations where drugs were being sold. The idea caught on throughout the city and spread nation-wide through national news coverage. For the period that it lasted, crime in those locations came to a halt. From the beginning of this effort we pleaded with City officials to institute regular foot patrols to engender a sense of safety, suppress crime and improve Community/Police relations. Initially they agreed, but the Trenton Chief of Police at the time started an alternative Community Policing Program where our group was the first class to attend the ‘Civilian Police Academy” to be the “eyes and ears” for the police. Each ward formed CPAC’s (Community-Police Advisory Councils) which had some limited success, but when the Police Chief organized “Civilian Patrols”, public interest began to wane. Having un-armed civilians patrolling the streets with flashlights, instead of trained police officers, was always a bad idea in my opinion.
For years the request for Foot Patrols was a frequent agenda item at CPAC and City Council meetings. Things finally came to a head when the Trenton Council of Civic Associations once again asked the Police Chief to institute them, but were told bluntly, “no you can’t, my men don’t want them”. When we threatened to take the issue to the Mayor to intervene, the reply from the Trenton Chief of Police was, “the Mayor can’t make me do anything, I got my position through Civil Service not the Mayor”. That was the last straw. To have a Civil Servant, paid with taxpayers dollars, to become so openly defiant of the wishes of the citizenry and even his boss the Mayor, was intolerable. Something had to change in a fundamental way.
The TCCA, the most politically powerful voting bloc in Trenton, made the decision to bring the head of the TPD under the direct appointment of the Mayor by abolishing the Civil Service position of Chief of Police, and replacing it with the civilian position of Police Director, thus providing the citizens of Trenton a way to hold them both accountable. TCCA members formed the “Yes We Can” coalition, (yes long before Obama borrowed the phrase) in opposition to the Police Chief’s, “no we can’t” declaration. The “Yes We Can”, coalition worked tirelessly to gather enough signatures to place a referendum question on the ballot in the next election. So in 1998 despite the implacable opposition from Police Unions and behind-the-scenes political operations led by Deputy Police Chief Joe Constance, the citizens of Trenton won the hard-fought referendum and abolished the unaccountable position of Trenton Police Chief.
Yet after all that Herculean effort, Administration after Administration, and a half dozen Police Directors, they still did not implement foot patrols in a meaningful way. Yes, token efforts were made, but not in a universal, sustainable way, and not in the neighborhoods that needed them the most.
So perhaps now one can understand why after all this time and effort, I am thrilled to pieces that now after only a month on the job, our new Civilian Police Director Sheilah Coley, has fulfilled the dream of a generation of citizens who feverishly want Trenton to be a safe place to live. I’ve already noticed that the drug dealers no longer hang-out on their regular corners. I suffer from no delusion that foot patrols are a panacea for all the crime in Trenton, but I’m convinced that it is the only effective way to finally bridge the gap between the police and the community, allow the police to identify the people and places where crime flourishes, and discern the difference between the good guys and bad guys. I commend our Mayor Reed Gusciora for finally choosing an effective leader of the TPD, and the Trenton Police Officers who regard regular foot patrols as “no big deal”. To me it is a “very big deal”. Now let’s figure out exactly who is shooting up the place and stop them.
Algernon Ward Jr. – President
Community In Action Civic Association
688 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Trenton NJ 08618