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Jersey City tries new anti-drug strategy

Originally appeared in the Home News Tribune on May 31, 1998

David Jefferson steps out of a rainy night into the dimly lit hallway of a decrepit Jersey City apartment building, looking to buy a $10 bag of heroin.

As soon as he asks for it, three undercover police grab him, throw him against a wall and slap handcuffs on him. Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler emerges from a hiding place. So do the chief of police and the head of the narcotics squad. At first, Jefferson, a 35-year-old waxer at a local car wash, is bewildered by all the attention and protests his innocence.

"I had me a piece of chicken. I was just going home," he mumbles. The smell of stale urine permeates the hallway as Jefferson, glassy-eyed, learns that the two men he asked for heroin were undercover police officers.

Jefferson is one of about 250 people seized by Jersey City police since April 14 in a radical new crime-fighting strategy with statewide implications.

The idea is to send a message to drug buyers: No purchase is too small, no offense too petty. The man you thought was a dealer might be a cop. If police succeed in planting seeds of doubt in the minds of people who buy drugs, they may be able to re-establish law and order on city street corners where open-air drug markets have flourished for decades, Mayor Schundler proclaims.

Other cities with a stubbornly high volume of drug traffic, including Plainfield, Asbury Park, Camden and Newark, have experimented with similar tactics but remain focused on higher-level deals and big arrests. State Attorney General Peter Verniero has said the street-deal approach, part of an effort to restore a better quality of life to the inner cities, is inspired by a successful program in New York that helped reduce crime by relentlessly pursuing violations, no matter how minor.

But Jersey City officials say their program is different and better than those tried elsewhere. They say state laws that have been applied against suspected drug purchasers in other cities are too cumbersome, requiring up to four hours of paperwork, according to Jersey City Police Chief William Thynne.

So in February, the Jersey City Council adopted an ordinance making it easier to prosecute people seeking to buy as little as $5 of marijuana. Instead of using state laws, city police now employ the municipal ordinance, which punishes loitering with the intent to buy drugs with a fine of up to $1,000.

Undercover police stand on corners and wait. When someone asks to buy drugs, he is led to a second location, where his request can be overheard. That's when other officers emerge and slap on the handcuffs. Without the long ritual of a formal arrest, stunned drug-seekers are whisked to a mobile processing station a few blocks away. If computer records show they are not wanted for another crime, they are issued a summons, like a common traffic ticket. The whole process takes about 15 minutes.

In that time, David Jefferson learns that the large man in a Miami Dolphins T-shirt he has approached on the street is an undercover cop. And Jefferson confesses he was shopping for heroin.

"I was just looking to buy 10," he says. "I was going home. I live around the corner." He is told it will cost him a fine. "I'll pay it," he says, still staring at the floor. "Jeez."

The Jersey City program builds on another initiative begun in 1990, when the city began using a computer to map high-drug-arrest zones and focus on them. Though a drop-off in crime was publicized, officials and residents remained far from satisfied, leading to the new ordinance.

The new program has its critics. Some, among them state Corrections Commissioner Jack Terhune, complain that Jersey City offers no in-patient rehabilitation program to help addicts change their behavior. Plainfield Police Chief John Driscoll and Monmouth County Assistant Prosecutor Don Peppler say they doubt a mere ticket has as much deterrent effect as formal booking and fingerprinting; Peppler says Monmouth's drug enforcement remains focused on larger, indictable offenses.

Camden County Prosecutor Lee Solomon notes that while Jersey City, with a population of 226,000, has about 50 open-air drug markets, Camden, with 82,000 residents, has four times that many. Moreover, Camden is the poorest city in New Jersey, fifth-poorest in America; Solomon says that posting a police officer on every corner for an eight-hour shift would consume nearly all the patrolmen the city can afford to hire, leaving hundreds of calls for assistance unanswered.

But police efficiency is just where the Jersey City program offers hope, according to Mayor Schundler. The first Jersey City cases are beginning to be heard by the municipal judge. During the first undercover sting operation April 14, 37 citations were issued. A month later, 21 people showed up for court. Eight pleaded guilty, agreeing to pay a total of $4,000 in fines. Another 13 pleaded not guilty and arrest warrants were issued for the rest.

If police issue enough citations, Schundler predicts, the program can help pay for itself. And as more cash rolls in, the city can afford to put more police on the streets.

Sensitive racial questions also are involved. Although police say a third of the people seeking to buy drugs are from suburban communities, the rest are inner-city residents, mostly unemployed or with menial jobs. An example: Moments after David Jefferson is led away in handcuffs, the door to the same hallway swings wide, and 50-year-old Maddie Holmes enters, a cigarette dangling from her lips and $9 in her hand.

Police say the unemployed Holmes was seeking a one-dollar discount for two $5 bottles of crack cocaine, a charge she denies. "I just got change from the grocery store," she says as ashes fell from her cigarette, and she begins to cry. She is pushed against the wall and handcuffed.

But neighborhood residents are not complaining, according to Councilwoman Melissa Holloway, who represents the area. Holloway says she does not oppose targeting low-income drug buyers. "People who use drugs are a detriment to their community," she argues. "They steal from somebody else to get that one hit."

The real problem, she says, occurs when the sting ends, the undercover police leave the corner, and the next day "it's business as usual." Drug dealers resume their places on the street. And police, so far, are unable to keep up enough pressure to close the open-air markets.

That will change, Mayor Schundler says, as more money becomes available to intensify the undercover operation. "One of the things that is most frustrating is the feeling that, ultimately, the problem is bigger than you are," he says. "The citizens feel that nothing is ever going to get better. I have hope that this will allow us to actually defeat the problem. You're not going to eliminate drug dealing altogether. But you can, at least, end the open-air markets. You can end the situation where you have kids hanging on the corners. And you can end the situation where people are coming into the city to buy drugs."

University of Maryland criminologist Tom Carr agrees that rigorous enforcement of local ordinances can have a lasting and dramatic effect if police patrols are increased round-the-clock for at least three months.

He cites a 64 percent drop in drug-related police calls after such a program in Langley Park, Md., and says the improvement lasted long after the intense police effort stopped.

Former U.S. Justice Department official Adam Walinsky, who is campaigning nationally for a more citizen-oriented approach to police work, supports such efforts because of the important community benefits he sees in closing open-air drug markets.

"But you have to understand the limits," he adds. "The fundamental problem we are dealing with here is not a drug problem. The fundamental problem is the social, economic and moral disintegration of the low-income black community."


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