ELIZABETH – Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow released data highlighting the city’s gang problem last week – a problem that Mayor Chris Bollwage has refused to admit exists.
In September, Romankow criticized Elizabeth for the high number of unsolved murders – which he blamed on the prevalence of gangs – and announced that a new task force under his direction would investigate all Union County homicides. Bollwage refused a request to join the task force, challenging the prosecutor’s legal authority to make him do so. Bollwage also said that most of Elizabeth’s gang members are in jail.
According to the prosecutor’s statistics, there are 655 gang members with an Elizabeth address in the county’s criminal database. Of those, 180 are in state prisons, 38 are in Union County jail and 157 are on parole. As of Friday, 280 verified gang members, whose last known address was in Elizabeth, were on the street.
“The citizens of Elizabeth and Union County deserve the truth when it comes to gangs and these numbers speak for themselves.” Romankow said. “Residents should know what is happening in their city.”
City spokesman Bill Reyes said the only gang members the prosecutor can definitively say live in Elizabeth are the 157 on parole. He said that no one knows whether the other 280 actually live in the city.
“We don’t think it’s fair to presume they’re here, we don’t know,” Reyes said, adding that the number is “nowhere near” the 655 members Romankow mentioned at an earlier news conference.
The prosecutor has often criticized the city for being in denial about Elizabeth’s gang problem. Elizabeth police do not include information about whether suspects are part of gangs on arrest reports, Romankow said. Elizabeth was the only municipality in New Jersey that refused to participate in the State Police gang survey last year.
“The determination of gang members is as basic an investigative tool as fingerprints were 75 years ago,” Romankow said. “Gang members are so involved in every aspect of crime from the sale of drugs to homicides, from simple assault to armed robberies to car jackings to stealing iPhones.”
Reyes said he didn’t know whether or not police include gang information on arrest reports. He also charged that a 2004 gang survey had been used for political purposes, not resident safety in Roselle Park.
Reyes said that the city’s DARE program added an anti-gang component this year and added that Elizabeth joined a coalition of community organizations that talk about gang prevention.
“Obviously we’re addressing the issue, to say we’re not is being disingenuous,” said Reyes.