Paterson’s Anti-Violence Activists Rejoice over Murder Arrests
Thursday, October 25, 2012 • 7:35am
PATERSON, NJ – Most times, the only news Patersonians get about the city’s crime problem is bad news: Police layoffs. A surge in shootings. A governor who doesn’t want to give Paterson extra money for law enforcement.
But the past nine days have provided Paterson’s grassroots community with a change of pace from what seems to be an ever-present cloud of frustration and despair. A flurry of homicide arrests that veteran police officers say is unlike anything they can recall has provided city residents and anti-crime activists with a glimmer of hope.
“With the limited resources they have, I think it’s fantastic they’re making these arrests,’’ said the Rev. Allen Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME Church on Auburn Street. “I just hope they make more arrests.’’
“The bottom line is there’s light at the end of the tunnel when we see the police doing their job like this,’’ said the Rev. James Staton, pastor of the Church of God and Saints of Christ in the 1st Ward. “It does send a message.’’
Since October 16, city police have arrested six men in connection with four separate incidents that left five people dead and five others wounded. Of course, there remain many unsolved cases. Paterson has had more than 90 shootings this year in which more than 100 people were wounded and about 15 others killed. That doesn’t include the numerous incidents in which shots are fired and no one gets hit.
One such shooting happened recently in the Rev. Stafford Miller’s neighborhood in the 1st Ward. It was something that didn’t faze folks in the area because no one was killed or wounded. “That’s what’s discouraging, we’re getting used to it,’’ said Miller, pastor of St. Philip’s Ministry of the United Methodist Church. “It’s become normal. Something like that should be as abnormal as an elephant tap dancing in ballet shoes.’’
Miller recently had a mural painted near his church in recognition of the violence plague that included a young man being gunned down on his street. “We celebrate these arrests,’’ said Miller. “I’ve never lacked faith in the Paterson police. It’s a lack of faith in our culture. It’s a culture that perpetuates violence.’’
Not everyone has confidence in the police department. “To me, the general consensus is, it’s about time,’’ said 1st Ward activist Teddy Martinez, of the Project Change. “It’s been eight good days but what about all the other murders and shootings? I think the public has very little faith in the Paterson police.’’
Martinez said he’s suspicious that the recent surge in arrests simply stems from pre-election pressures applied by politicians at various levels of government. “Arrests always go up before an election,’’ he said. “Let’s see what happens after the election.’’
Indeed, the relationship between Paterson’s police department and its people has been a sometimes strained one. At public meetings, whenever crime is the topic, there tend to be as many complaints about police performance as there is praise. Some initiatives, like the Cease-Fire program, are seeking to build bridges between the community and the cops. Again and again, activists, government officials and law enforcement members say Paterson needs a cooperative effort between the public and the police for the city’s crime problem to get better.
The Rev. Boyer, for example, said he hoped some of the recent murder arrests stemmed from community crime tips. “The community needs to help the police department,’’ he said.
The Rev. John Algera agrees with that assessment. He talked of the need for unity. “One of the problems that police have is that nobody sees anything,’’ said Algera. “People don’t want to get involved. We need to take ownership of our communities. We really do.’’
But some residents say police expect too much from them. They say the bad guys are watching to see who cooperates and are ready to retaliate against anyone who “snitches.” At one community meeting last year, several residents complained that they become targets when police come to their doors to talk to them when they report trouble in the neighborhood.
Martinez said authorities would get more cooperation if they offered rewards for information in crime investigations. “It’s sad that it takes that, but we have to face the reality of our environment,’’ he said. “You put up a $1,000, you’ll see how much information you’ll get.’’
But officials say the Paterson police department doesn’t have extra money to be kicking around, not with the city’s budget as tight as it has been. The public safety departments represent the largest part of the city’s budget and their spending comes under intense scrutiny. For several months, the city council had refused to approve overtime payments for police officers, a practice that stopped after the police unions took the city to court.
Law enforcement officials say it costs an average of more than $20,000 in overtime to investigate a homicide. Many killings happen in the middle of the night and require an around-the-clock effort to solve, police say.
Fourth Ward community activist Quincy Battis said he considered the recent arrests as vindication of the overtime payments made to Paterson detectives. “When it comes to protecting the citizens of Paterson,’’ there should be no cap on overtime spending, Battis said.
Others agree that more resources would provide more protection. “The Paterson police are doing a great job, but the Paterson police department is really undermanned,’’ said the Rev. James Salmon of the New Christ Missionary Baptist Church in the 1st Ward. “We’re not getting the help from the governor we need.’’
Last month, the City Council considered a proposal to declare a state of emergency in Paterson to get the state to provide the city with extra law enforcement funding. But Gov. Chris Christie said he didn’t intend to send extra money to the city because Paterson officials were wasting the money they already had. Those comments stung many city residents who said they felt the governor was more worried about his budget than about saving lives. The Christie administration hasn’t been totally blind to Paterson’s struggle with crime. In the spring, the State Police assign a contingent of troopers to Paterson and citizens and officials have credited that group with helping to bring some hotspots under control.
Still, activists say, Paterson needs more help. “It’s a free for all on the streets,’’ said the Rev. Salmon. “It’s a Dodge City situation.’’
Sylvia Farrar said Paterson’s reputation’s lawlessness extends through the state. “When you go to Trenton or someplace and say you’re from Paterson, people immediately take two steps away from you,’’ she said. “They think everybody from Paterson is violent.’’
Farrar said she hopes the recent arrests send a message. “At some point we have to let these young people know that it’s not acceptable to kill each other,’’ she said. “At some point we have to get their attention.’’