Sunday, August 20, 2006

Crime - Courier - City wants crime to be trend

Published in the Courier News, Tuesday, August 15, 2006

City wants crime dip to be a lasting trend

Staff Writer

PLAINFIELD -- Coming off a record year for homicides -- 15 in 2005 -- Plainfield police officials said they were bracing for the possibility that violent crimes would spike this year.

But by August, Plainfield has seen fewer homicides than it did by the same time last year. There have been six killings in the city so far this year, compared with 11 by August 2005.

Officials are quick to deflect suggestions of a trend. Homicides, they said, are difficult to predict or generalize. But increased police presence on the streets and local cooperation with county and state law enforcement agencies are being hailed as steps toward a safer Plainfield.

"We're trying a more proactive approach to crime, and I think it's working," said Martin Hellwig, Plainfield's director of public safety. "For a long time, the city was being very reactionary, and it wasn't doing anything."

After a reorganization of the city's police department earlier this year and the addition of five police officers to a force of almost 150 people, the city now has 18 more uniformed police officers in patrol cars. The addition, Hellwig said, brings the city's number of patrol officers to 88.

"We have had a lot of success with the new patrol model, and we're actually catching people on the street after they commit crimes," Hellwig said. "Obviously, we're happy about that."

Some residents said they have noticed more police cars circling their neighborhoods -- a welcomed sign of change, they said, but not proof of a complete turnaround.

"You can see more police, that's true," said resident Alea Jackson, 37. "But do I feel safer? No."

Officials admit that in a city with an estimated 500 gang members, increased police presence alone doesn't change annual crime statistics.

"Plainfield this year had six homicides, which is fortunately a lower rate than last year, and that's great, but what concerns us is that four of those six involved gangs," Union County Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow said.

"The statewide average is that 12 percent of homicides be gang related, and Plainfield is at 66 percent," he said.

Romankow and Hellwig both said the Plainfield Police Department has been working closely with the Union County Prosecutor's Office throughout the past few months targeting the city's gangs and drug rings -- considered by officials to be the primary source of Plainfield's violent crimes.

The crackdown, Romankow said, is supplemented by severe sentences for those convicted of gang and drug involvement.

But it's a program set to kick-off this fall -- Operation Cease Fire -- that has officials really buzzing with promise for the city.

"The community is outraged in Plainfield; they are upset and they want law enforcement to help them," Romankow said. "Cease Fire is meant to reduce gun violence by stopping the next shooting. We know that gun violence is something the community wants us to respond to, and through Cease Fire, we think we can do it."

Cease Fire works by placing a state trooper in the Plainfield Police Department who will assess the department's training, personnel and equipment needs, Romankow said. The city will locate centers of gang and drug activity -- many of which exist in Plainfield's West End, Romankow said.

A state police-trained unit will be formed to patrol the hot spot areas and treat every incident of gun shots fired as a homicide investigation, even when there is no victim.

"Handguns -- we know there are a limited number of people that use handguns, so we want to focus in on them," Romankow said.

With much of the success of the program hinging on community support -- witnesses to crimes informing police of what they've seen -- Romankow said getting the community on board and informed about the program is of high importance to law enforcement.

"This program is working in Irvington, where there's been a 25 percent reduction in shootings in the city's target zones," Romankow said of Cease Fire. "Because of that, it's gained significant community support, which I hope is what happens here."

Christa Segalini can be reached at (908) 707-3142 or

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.