As homicides spike, Trenton mayor stands by police director

Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora (P. Kenneth Burns / WHYY)

Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora (P. Kenneth Burns / WHYY)

Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora says he stands by Police Director Sheilah Coley, who has been under fire for the increasing violence in the city and at least one controversial decision.

“I think she’s done a yeoman’s job of changing the culture in the police department,” he said, citing that the department is becoming more reflective of the community it serves.

“When I first came, out of the 18 captains and lieutenants, one person was of color,” he added. “We’re doing recruitments and we’re going to have some promotions coming in the next couple of weeks that will help move that goal along.”

There have been 28 homicides in New Jersey’s Capital City so far this year, according to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. The most recent homicide happened in August in the 1100 block of East State Street, the Trentonian reported. According to state police data, the homicide total to date for 2020 is nearly as much as for the previous two years combined. There were 15 in 2019 and 16 in 2018.

Criticism of Coley came to a head in a newspaper column written by a former Trenton Police Lieutenant questioning where Coley was as violence heated up in late Spring. Coley responded a week later, telling her critics that she wanted to have a clear message.

There is also a continuing investigation by the county prosecutor’s office into Coley ordering officers to stand down on the night of May 31 as rioters caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to downtown businesses. The destruction followed a day of peaceful protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The complaint was filed with the prosecutor’s office by “the Latino Merchant Association and a downtown property owner,” according to NJ.com.

Coley has defended her decision since that day. She explained to Peterson’s Breaking News in June that she encountered officers who couldn’t explain “their mission” and that she knew “if you don’t know why you’re going, you don’t have an exit strategy.

“Because of all the chaos that was going on in the city, I knew that just letting them go in head first was going to be a dangerous situation,” Coley said. “My officers were unequipped, inexperienced and lacked the training to disperse a crowd of that nature.”

That night she ordered them to return to a command post.

 

Mayor Gusciora said that he backs up Coley’s reasoning for stopping officers from responding.

“There could have been injuries both to police and civilians and I think that we avoided a human toll during that unrest,” he added.

Both Council President Kathy McBride and Council Vice President Marge Caldwell-Wilson said in a joint statement they and the City Council support Coley and “all of the Trenton Police Department’s officers at all levels.” They point to the council’s unanimous vote approving Gusciora’s April 2019 appointment.

Gusciora acknowledged the spike in violence this year but said that Trenton is no different from any other city in the country.

“From New York, Philadelphia and beyond; even the cities in New Jersey have seen an increase in crime,” he said. “There definitely is that COVID effect that unfortunately has a negative aspect in public safety.”

Gusciora also noted his city’s location and how that has an effect on crime; a stop on the eastern seaboard drug trade that’s across the river from Pennsylvania. He said guns on the streets of Trenton are purchased in the commonwealth, where the laws are less strict.

“Oftentimes investigators will say they’ll see gang members over at a gun show purchasing bullets and it’s not for hunting purposes,” he said. “While it may be legal in Pennsylvania, it wouldn’t be legal in the state of New Jersey.”

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, he said officers have gotten more than 100 guns and hundreds and thousands of dollars in illegal substances off the street. Gusciora says information-sharing is better between state, county and federal law enforcement agencies than before. In addition, he said the city is on deck to receive $4.5 million from the state to create a crime intelligence center similar to ones in Newark and Camden.

But some think the money should go elsewhere. The Trenton Anti-Violence Coalition said in a statement that until Gusciora “redirects the millions of dollars funneled to a FAILING AND INCOMPETENT POLICE DEPARTMENT; and reallocate monies to community programs and services, the conditions that create VIOLENCE will remain.”

“To be clear, taking measures that only increase INCARCERATION is not sustainable,” they added.

We can work together

Despite disagreements that get heated, including one where one councilwoman went on a profanity-laced tirade against the mayor and another councilman, both Gusciora and the council said they have no problem working together.

“The Trenton City Council absolutely does not have a problem with working with the Mayor,” said Council President McBride and Council Vice President Caldwell-Wilson.  “We would like information provided on the items we vote on in a comprehensive and timely fashion. Our first priority is the taxpayers of the City of Trenton and the Council is united in that goal.”

Gusciora said there are “eight strong personalities” including three council veterans and he’s in his first term as mayor and that he respects that “everybody has their idea or concept of how to run the city.”

“I respectfully disagree with some of their methods,” he said adding that he has a phone call with at least one councilperson a day.

“One-on-one it’s not too bad, but it’s the collective council that has many challenges,” he said, “but I think that, overall, we still have accomplished a lot in the last two years and we hope to accomplish a lot more in the next two years.”

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