Lakewood, NJ – To Lakewood resident Laura Quinones, the murder of a police officer and a series of killings in the last year have given the township a new name.
“This isn’t Lakewood anymore,” she said. “This is Blood-wood.”
Even though police won’t acknowledge if the officer’s murder was committed by a gang member, gang violence has been a part of Lakewood for years. Its street gangs and drug trade are as well-known as the township’s upscale senior retirement villages and Orthodox Jewish and Catholic schools.
The violence has been so rampant in the last 13 months – five murders plus the death of the police officer – that some officials say the gang problem may be too big for the township to handle.
“When it comes to gang issues, I think any community needs additional help,” said state Sen. Robert W. Singer, R-Ocean, a Lakewood resident and former mayor. “The gang problems are too big for any one community.”
Committeeman Meir Lichtenstein, the Township Committee liaison to the police department, said the township is not losing a crime war. But it has more work to do, he said.
“Gangs are beginning to take root and they are expanding,” Lichtenstein said. “It’s a battle to keep up.”
The Jan. 14 shooting death of Lakewood Police Officer Christopher Matlosz, 27, follows multiple murders, shootings, assaults and robberies in the last year in Lakewood.
Some have been linked to gangs in a township known for gangland murders in the last five years, but police and county law enforcement officials have downplayed gang connections in recent months. Authorities often say they just don’t know if a violent incident was a personal dispute or an orchestrated act carried out by a criminal group.
It is a distinction that matters little to the township’s 71,400 residents, who are caught figuratively, and in some cases literally, in the gangland crossfire.
Law enforcement officials have not said if Jahmell W. Crockam, accused of murdering Matlosz, is a member of a gang. Crockam, 19, is charged with shooting Matlosz three times in the head. Crockam has also been charged with the Oct. 15 shooting murder of 20-year-old Justin A. Williams of Lakewood.
The family of Crockam, also known as “Savage” or “Sav,” said he is innocent and is being framed by police.
Ocean County Prosecutor Marlene Lynch Ford, whose office will prosecute Crockam, said “you can’t do enough” to fight gangs. But there are limits to law enforcement’s resources, she said.
“It’s the same issues that are facing all the police departments, but at some point in time you have to say, “maybe it’s time for us to reprioritize here and decide what we’re going to do,’ ” she said. “It’s a constant evaluation of all” of the resources.
Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., whose district includes Lakewood, said “I don’t think we ever do enough, especially when the problem gets worse.”
He said he believes that many law enforcement officials, including county and local officials, are “playing a herculean role, especially the cop on the beat at great risk to himself of herself. . . . So we just have to be more supportive and try to reach the young people” and get them to steer clear of gangs.
Lakewood is not the first, nor will it be the last, to suffer at the hands of gang members. Active gangs in the township include the violence-prone Bloods, the Latino MS-13 gang and the Latin Kings, according to a 2007 State Police report on gang activity in the state. In 2007, the Bloods were the largest gang, with 150 to 200 members in the township, the report stated. No updated report has been issued since.
North of Lakewood, Plainfield has declared war on its gangs.
Plainfield Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs declared a state of emergency in June following a dozen-plus shooting incidents in the Union County city in the preceeding month. Most of the violence was linked to feuding gangs.
Last week, federal law enforcement officers cracked down, arresting 13 suspected Bloods street gang members and associates in Plainfield.
“We had a sting operation,” including a nearly one-year investigation that involved federal, state, county and local officers, Robinson-Briggs said. “We feel that this is something very positive in terms of getting a handle on recent gang activity.”
She said that she believes more arrests will be made.
The Jan. 14 shooting of Matlosz, the first Ocean County police officer murdered in the line of duty, sent shock waves throughout the state.
The shooting “really has shaken the community to its very bone,” Singer said.
But gang activity in Lakewood is limited to a couple of sections and is not a township-wide problem, he said.
When he served as mayor two years ago, Singer said he worked with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office to help bolster its anti-gang efforts.
Singer said he has confidence in the Prosecutor’s Office to battle the problem and plans to meet with Ford. He also will go to state Attorney General Paula T. Dow if necessary, he added.
“We’ve seen the gangs actually get more violent,” Singer said. “Gang activity has stepped up and we have to respond to that.”
Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, said he couldn’t comment specifically on Lakewood. But investigating and prosecuting violent street gangs is one of Dow’s top priorities, he said.
Additional resources have been devoted to fighting street gangs, Aseltine said. In April, the attorney general announced $10 million in state and federal money for gang prevention programs, such as helping jailed gang members find legitimate employment once they are released so they do not return to a gang life.
Dow, a former Essex County prosecutor, is “very familiar with the violence that these gangs inflict on communities and is very concerned to address it,” Aseltine said.
Both the state police and Division of Criminal Justice are involved in gang investigations and gathering intelligence throughout the state, he said. The state police provides intelligence on gang threats to local police departments, he said.
The state has a large number of investigations and prosecutions targeting gangs, particularly the Bloods, he said.
FBI Special Agent Bryan L. Travers wouldn’t comment on whether the gang problem in Lakewood is too large for the township to handle.
We work very closely with law enforcement all around the state,” he said. “We have gang task forces and very strong initiatives to address the gang problem in New Jersey.”
Prosecutor Ford said the Lakewood Police Department is “extraordinarily competent about identifying and dealing with gang issues.”
“But like so much in crime, it’s opportunistic and it’s difficult to anticipate what (a gang’s) next move is and so forth,” she said. “It is a statewide problem and, obviously, it requires a statewide response.”
The Prosecutor’s Office has a Gang Violence Initiative and participates in a joint regional task force on gangs, she said. It also has been involved in informing Lakewood students about gangs, she said.
“So what we’re trying to do is stop the recruiting of the younger kids,” she said.
Lakewood Committeeman Lichtenstein said gang prevention starting in the schools will be critical because gangs are recruiting younger and younger children.
“We lost an officer,” Lichtenstein said. “But there is also a 19-year-old whose life is essentially over.”
Lakewood is not alone in the county when it comes to gang infestation.
Neighboring Brick has its own gang issues, but it has become tougher for the township police to battle them, Police Chief N. Rick Bergquist has said.
Last year, due to budget constraints, the township disbanded its four-man Selective Enforcement Team. The squad was formed in 2009 to combat rising drug- and gang-related crimes, and it increased drug-related arrests by 300 percent, Bergquist said.
Since the task force was disbanded, its members have been added to the routine police patrols, he said.