After a spate of killings, prosecutor says Cumberland County is not a ‘war zone’

Bridgeton, N.J. police car

(Bridgeton Police Department)

In the early hours of Tuesday, July 17, shots rang out at the corner of Elmer and Walnut streets in Bridgeton, N.J., an hour’s drive south of Philadelphia.

Bullets hit cars and blew through the back wall of a nearby home, where 9-year-old Jennifer Trejo was asleep in her bed. She was struck and killed by the gunfire.

Last Thursday, after leaving a youth football practice he had been coaching, Joseph L. Jones was gunned down in a Millville middle school parking lot. Kids were still on school grounds when the murder took place, and are being offered grief counseling.

On Saturday, Erica McNair was shot in the head while sitting on her front porch in Bridgeton. She later died in the hospital.

The three killings have shocked the South Jersey community, not only for their dizzying pace, but also for the fact that children were among the victims and witnesses.

Jennifer Webb-McRae, the Cumberland County Prosecutor, released a statement over the weekend urging residents not to lose faith in law enforcement and each other amid the rash of violence.

“I know that some are saying that Cumberland County is a ‘war zone’ and that they don’t wish to live here anymore,” Webb-McRae wrote. “To that I would say, I could have chosen to live anywhere and prospered, but I chose to return here and raise a family because [of] all the great things and people Cumberland County has to offer. I will not let criminals hold my community hostage.”

Webb-McRae also acknowledged that she was feeling personally saddened by the slayings. “I, too, am experiencing grief and stress due to these traumatic events,” she wrote.

The pace of killings in recent weeks dwarfs the typical homicide rate in Cumberland County.

According to the prosecutor’s office, there were a dozen homicides in 2016 and the same amount in 2017. That works out to one murder per month.

But there have been three homicides in the county within the last 30 days, suggesting a recent spike in violence.

(It is unclear if Cumberland County’s murder rate is up for the whole year, however, because the prosecutor’s office does not have up-to-date data for 2018 yet.)

The string of murders comes on the heels of a July police shooting in Vineland, in which an officer shot and killed 37-year-old Rashaun Washington, of Bridgeton. Washington told police he had a bomb, then approached officers with what turned out to be a garden shear, according to officials.

Rev. Dr. Robin Weinstein, pastor at Bethany Grace Community Church in Bridgeton, said many of Cumberland County’s problems emanate from the fact that over 19 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to Census figures. That is nearly double the rate of New Jersey overall.

“You can’t talk about violence unless we’re also talking about poverty. And really what we’re talking about is hopelessness. What do we do to address that as a society?” said Rev. Dr. Weinstein. “It’s very frustrating that we have become the nation that does nothing in light of these tragedies.”

In her statement, Webb-McRae made a point to also highlight the positive work being done by local officials and community members to impact the lives of children.

The Cumberland County Positive Youth Coalition aims to reduce juvenile delinquency, she said, and several local police athletic leagues serve not only to encourage participation in sports, but also teach life skills.

“Law enforcement can’t solve every problem for the community. The community has to do that,” McRae said, in an interview. “Part of that is us locking arms together and saying we’re not going to submit to the violence.”

“I understand how people are feeling,” she added, “but don’t lose hope.”

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