Wednesday, November 28, 2007

"The Sin is Not to Try"

Landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO) indiscriminately maim and kill people across Southeast Asia, and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is calling on regional governments to redouble their efforts to clean up the devastating waste from decades of war.*

It's the little things in life that mean the most, no? Simple courtesies, respect, and politeness can begin to turn a bad situation around. If Police Director Joseph Santiago stopped saying "Crime is Down," and instead acknowledged the real fears of city residents, it would begin to bridge the terrible chasm that divides the non-criminals who live here.

Glen and I, along with a bunch of other city residents, sat through Santiago's mundane PowerPoint presentation last night, a presentation that included about 30 slides, two of which had some moving text bubbles; it was a presentation that would have been mediocre in 1997, and the director said he was committed to technology, bringing the department into the 21st century. He printed out the slides for council, so I'm hoping Jim Coston will put them on his website because projected onto the big screen in council chambers, the slides were just too small to read, and I have decent eyesight. The slideshow was really just very sad (and boring), especially since Director Santiago bragged about how he incorporated computers into the department when he took over in 2003. He also told us, "The sin is not to fail, the sin is not to try." Problem is, it's unclear what he's trying to do. But, for the record, Crime is Down.

It's just insulting to hear him say "crime is down, crime is down" over and over again, when those of us who live in the city know that we are living in a mine field. If we hole up in our homes, chances are we'll be safe (but it's no guarantee, is it?), but as soon as we step outside, we pray that we don't encounter an "unexploded ordnance" in a hoodie, brandishing a weapon in our direction. Property crimes may be down, but if we go to the store to pick up a sandwich, there's a better chance than ever that four thugs will pull a gun on us, take our sandwich and the remaining $3 we have in our pockets. It's deplorable to hear Santiago say, "crime is down, crime is down," when packs of knuckleheads beat the crap out of mentally handicapped people; carjack young mommies as they lift their precious cargo from their baby seats; and bludgeon to death senior citizens.

The discussion that followed the PowerPoint presentation was a delicious mix of stressful and exciting; I simultaneously found myself clenching, as if to prepare for a bomb to hit, and mouth open, in awe and delight. For starters, council was more or less unified! And more or less mad as hell!

Down the line, in the order in which they spoke:

Cordelia Staton wanted to know why more wasn't being done to combat drug dealing, since "drugs drive crime."

Manny Segura said, "The content of the presentation is not the reality," and went on to describe how he recently helped a crime victim, who ultimately got little help from the officers at the East Ward precinct. "The cooperation with the police is not seen like it was before," he said.

Gino Melone's statements were one of the highlights of the evening, for me. Sometimes I'm not sure where my councilman stands on particular issues, but last night, he did a superb job of not only reppin' the east side, but all of the city. He seemed outright pissed that Director Santiago has been unresponsive to council and citizen concerns, and wanted to know if the director would be sticking around for the public portion of the meeting (I was furiously taking notes at this point, and am just tickled with Santiago's response: "I'll deal with them," is what Santiago said. "I'll deal with them." Good stuff! Santiago was defensively agitated by Melone's statements, and counterattacked that he was available when Melone handed the phone to him on a weekend to talk to a person who had a plant stolen. What? Seemed that the director was grasping at straws.). Ultimately, Melone said he doesn't feel safe, doesn't feel safe for his young daughter, and will only take her to the park early in the morning when he knows no one is around.

Annette Lartigue's statements to Santiago smelled strongly of political posturing, and included intelligent but non-germane comments about the schools; and she suggested declaring official emergency in the city of Trenton; and she implored the director to crack down on packs of kids and loiterers. (This ultimately spawned a bit of conversation about civil liberties, and later, the overcrowded prisons, and the effectiveness of tougher laws, and so forth. Santiago expressed concern about the legalities of loitering laws** -- his department can't and shouldn't enforce potentially unconstitutional legislation; and yet his virtue about the law is ironic, considering his residency in Stirling, NJ, is a violation of a different law.) It was surprising she didn't ask Santiago directly about his residency, considering her position in the papers earlier this week.

Milford Bethea graciously declined to comment, to allow more time for Jim Coston and the public to speak.

Jim Coston said that he placed a call to Director Santiago in August; a call which was unreturned, so Coston asked that his comments, comprised of many yes/no questions, be seen as that returned phone call. This was also a highlight of the evening for me. Coston wanted to know if the new vehicles requested by the police department will stay within city limits, or if they'll regularly leave the city. Santiago responded, longwindedly, that he couldn't guarantee that the cars would stay in the city, but they would be put to good use fighting crime. Coston wanted to know if the position of communications director for the police department (a position ultimately filled by Santiago's friend Irv Bradley, who currently lives in Rahway), was made available to city residents before Bradley was hired. I was unclear on this answer; if anyone knows, let me know. Coston wanted to know if Irv Bradley was planning to move to Trenton, as required by law. According to Santiago, Bradley placed a deposit on a unit in the Broad Street Bank. Coston also brought up the issue of Santiago's residency outside of the city, and said that council should use its powers to remove Santiago if Santiago doesn't move to the city, and Palmer fails to act.

Council president Paul Pintella said that he knows where so many of the city's drug hot spots are, and has witnessed plenty middle-of-the-day open air deals, and wondered if the police saw this as well, and if so, why it's allowed to continue? He also said, inexplicably, given the power of his previous statements, that he'd give the director an "Eight, eight and a half" on a scale of one to 10, for his job performance; he didn't give a 10 because he needs Santiago "to keep reaching."

I wish council pressed Santiago more about the residency issue, though there is part of me that feels that we should be able to live where we want to live. But I also think following rules and laws and our job descriptions are not optional. If Santiago actually lived in this city — in fact, if we had more police officers living in this city — it would only help to improve the quality of life. Right now, we don't even have foot patrols (at least in our parts), and it feels that the department is very separated from the residents, and while all the officers I've encountered have been great, this separation doesn't allow officers to know who the real problematic people are, it makes it difficult for them to understand the nuances and rhythms in a neighborhood, and it make the residents less trustful of them.

While I can't really fully grasp why city council — as a body — has only been Mayor Palmer's rubber stamp and pocket book recently, instead of the representatives of the citizens, I was heartened to see their collective and individual reactions to Santiago's presentation, his lack of availability, and his lack of forthcoming with and/or understanding of the real public safety details in Trenton. I hope this isn't "too little too late," but rather marks a significant change on council, and if political aspirations provide some fuel for that, I've got no problem with it, as long as it helps to improve Trenton.

Director Santiago said, "What we're doing in Trenton is not being done anywhere else," and he said it in a way to indicate that his team is doing good stuff for the city, but he cited no sources, no crime-fighting models that other police agencies are using successfully. So after sleeping on it, I'm left with a feeling that he and his team of "experts" are just making stuff up as they go, and that's why it's not "being done anywhere else." They're making up new acronyms for old tactics that haven't been working, instead of looking at nearby and extremely functional New York City, a huge city with a record low in violent crime.

The public was invited to speak, and the comments were varied. There were some who found sympathy for Director Santiago, saying that Trenton's problems existed long before he came to office, and are indicative of poor parenting, and that's not the police department's fault. It's true, so I can't disagree with that, and at the same time, I cannot excuse Santiago's disregard for the details of his own job description, I cannot excuse the fact that the citizens of this city have been kept almost entirely in the dark about crime, and I cannot excuse his dismissive attitude. In fact, Glen and I noticed Santiago and Assistant Business Administrator Dennis Gonzalez giggling during the public portion; he spent a good deal of time on his PDA during public comment as well. It was a long, heated meeting, and if Santiago wasn't at the center of it all, so what if he had a laugh or two, or sent some text messages to a family member or colleague? But he was the center of the meeting, and those actions do not inspire a sense of concern for the public, a public he is paid (very well) to serve. If you want, you can look up Santiago's salary (or any other public official's) here.

Some other public comments:
"Bulldoze Walnut Avenue and start over again."
"The police department needs more dogs. The criminals aren't afraid of us, or council, or the police, but they are afraid of dogs."
"Maybe we should stop having baby showers for young girls in the school cafeteria, and instead send them away, like we used to do."
"We need more black police officers."
"The black leadership has failed the youth in Trenton."
"Instead of calling me to attend your press conferences, call my next door neighbor" (referring to the mother of four miscreants).
"I'm tired of hearing about the rights of these kids. What about my rights?"

I didn't agree with every single comment, but I absolutely understand the frustration of the people who live in this city. One resident even suggested "taking matters into his own hands," to help improve his quality of life, and while I don't know what he implied specifically, I do know that regular citizens can do so much to effect change, and I hope we all keep talking about it, keep pressuring our officials to do right by us. We all share a degree of responsibility in the success of our community. Hopefully, we can see our way through the mine field one way or another without much more damage to life and limb.

*I'm not trying to make light of the landmine situation in Southeast Asia. It's tragic. Read more about it here.

**I'm certainly no fan of loitering thugs, in fact, I hate them. But I also understand that the social dynamics in this world make it very difficult for groups of teenagers and young adults of any color, but specifically black teenagers, to go hang out at the mall (for instance). And no offense to our fine history, there's just not that much for kids to do in this city, day after day, week after week (though I believe that to be a problem of all kids in all walks of life; they all feel there's nothing to do. But here in Trenton, there are fewer typical social outlets). The loitering laws in our country are unconstitutional, which, in theory, I understand. But in practical reality, it can be a freakin' drag when there are 8 thugs hanging out on the mailbox in front of your house. Santiago mentioned a way to combat this problem, legally, by invoking our right to public passage. Four or more people constitutes an obstruction of public passage, and apparently the police can act on this.


Irving Bertrand Clean said...

Brian from 'Family Guy' said it best:

"Wow. Just... wow."

I don't even know where to begin.

Miss Karen said...

Man! I'm sorry I couldn't be there, but now I almost feel like I was. Thanks for the recap--much more helpful than what was in The Times this morning.

Old Mill Hill said...


You did a wonderful job of describing the proceedings and tallying your (and many other's) feelings.

We're not getting, IMHO, our money's worth from the Director. If he'd move here and make a conscious effort to connect we might reconsider.

As it stands now, he's very much about the sizzle, skimpy on the steak.

And, if I had one criticism, you neglected to detail the cold, reptilian, "You are so dead" glance he shot at Frank Weeden as the former Mayoral Candidate left the podium.

A nerve had been struck.

pbaman said...

Excellent. I like the details and quotes you included in this post.