What to do about gang-related shootings

Two shot in Newport Mall raise questions about security

Newport Mall sits in the middle of Jersey City's waterfront. A shooting there has people concerned.
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Newport Mall sits in the middle of Jersey City's waterfront. A shooting there has people concerned.

The shooting of two people at Newport Mall on Jan. 11 happened at a bad time, in a bad place, law enforcement professionals say; concerns about the incident and its implications are reverberating throughout the community.

“This was a shooting between rival gang members who bumped up against each other at the mall,” said Councilman Richard Boggiano, a retired police officer.

Police officials said a fistfight in the food court area of the mall at about 6 p.m. ended with a shooting that appears to have been related to other crimes including a shootout on Grand Street earlier in January.

Yet with the spate of mass shootings across the country over the last few years, the report of any shooting in the mall raises alarms.

The mall, especially the food court area where the Jan. 11 shooting took place, is a popular gathering place for teens from throughout the county.

Mass transit to the mall

It is an unusual mall because unlike its suburban counterparts many people come there via mass transit. The Hudson Bergen Light Rail’s Newport stop on the eastern side serves as a kind of depot for mall-goers, teens, and commuters to Manhattan and the financial district of Jersey City. The mall also has a large parking deck on the west side that allows people to access the mall from that direction as well. Kids often exit the trains to meet up with friends but also encounter kids from elsewhere, who are not on their usual turf.

Police said the shooting on Jan. 11 was unusual for a number of reasons. Most shootings in Jersey City occur on the south side of the city. However, this shooting appears to have been carried over from a conflict on Grand Street earlier in the week. One of the suspected shooters may even have been involved in a murder late last year. The mall shooting was, most officials confirm, a conflict between rival gangs.

While Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and city public safety officials said crime, including shootings, went down in 2018 compared to the year before, the decrease was marred by shootings and murders, most related to gangs.

The gang factor

“One of the three kids arrested last week for a murder in Jersey City was a 14-year-old from a local grammar school,” said one school official. “Everybody knew he was involved in a gang.”

While Boggiano said a gang-related shooting tends to pose less risk to the general public than a mass shooting, he said the incident at the mall was disturbing.

Innocent people can become victims in a gang-related shooting, police say; incidents like the mall shooting generally have one or more intended targets. The shooter and victim tend to know each other. The shooting evolves out of some personal conflict, some slight that has escalated into retaliation.

This seems to be the case with the Jan. 11 incident. The conflict apparently started as a fistfight on the third floor of the mall in the very popular food court area and escalated into a shooting before police could respond.

The mall factor

There are no straight lines in the mall, meaning that to cross it from end to end, people often have to weave through wide corridors.

The main route from the parking decks on the west side to the light rail station on the east, takes a lot of twists and turns.

Escalators lead to the second and third floors at different locations, but the layout is designed to increase exposure to sales items and shopping opportunities, not for line-of- sight prevention in a shooting incident.

Although there is an office for police near the east side of the mall, responding to a crime requires them to travel the same route shoppers must, often moving through crowds. To respond to a fight on the third flood, they would have to access freight elevators and back hallways which can be confusing for those not familiar with them.

Police must also contend with public panic resulting from witnessing or hearing about the shooting, and the confusion of shoppers, who are not aware of what is transpiring and are reacting as if this might be a mass shooting.

“Once it is clear that a shooting has taken place, the Cease Fire Unit takes charge. This is the unit that handles all shootings in the city.”–Det. Sean Connors

The Cease Fire Unit

“In a situation like this one, police brass put out a call for all available personnel in the area, uniformed or not,” said retired Det. Sean Connors, who is currently the communications director for the Hudson County Sheriff’s Department. “Once it is clear that a shooting has taken place, the Cease Fire Unit takes charge. This is the unit that handles all shootings in the city.”

The Cease Fire Unit, created about three years ago, is composed of highly skilled detectives tasked with responding to and investigating all nonfatal shootings citywide 24 hours a day.

“By establishing a unit dedicated solely to investigating shootings, to gather evidence and criminal intelligence, we will have a cohesive and immediate response to these violent crimes,” Mayor Fulop said, when the unit was first established. “Rather than to wait for information to come in from the different detective squads in the districts, this unit will work citywide on cases to bring closure and prevent additional shootings.”

Fatal shootings are routinely handled by the Hudson County Prosecutors’ Office.

Connors said it is routine for a lockdown to occur while the police search the area for active shooters.

“This is to keep civilians safe,” Connors said. “Once the scene is secure, the police then seek out witnesses, and since the mall is camera intensive, the department will start reviewing security footage from throughout the mall.”

Keeping the mall safe

Connors said violence in the mall is of a particular concern because of the number of people who pass through daily, especially during rush hour when this incident occurred.

“How to keep it secure will be something public safety people will be looking at,” Connors said.

Some public officials have suggested that the police department upgrade the current police office at the mall to a mini precinct. Some officers complained that doing away with off-duty assignments for police may be an issue when it comes to the mall, since the mall hired off-duty cops to work security until the city disbanded the program.

Freeholder Anthony Romano, a retired Hoboken police captain, said more police might not be the answer.

“This kind of incident is random,” Romano said. “You can have 100 cops in the mall and still not stop something like this.”

While there is a concern about gang members carrying guns, even preventing guns might be an issue.

“You could put in metal detectors,” Romano said. “But there are so many ways into that mall, metal detectors might not be a practical solution.”

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com