NJ State Police Survey Raises Issue of Gangs in Berkley Heights; Law Enforcement and Mayor Bruno Say There's No Cause for Alarm

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - A recent survey by the New Jersey State Police, which reported the number of criminal gang members in the state, caused a stir in Berkeley Heights last month. Residents, shocked to see the number of gang members in town listed as 32, asked for an explanation.

“I was taken aback by the statement and talked with our Chief of Police, Michael Mathis, who said that the number was inaccurate,” Berkeley Heights Mayor Joe Bruno said.

After investigating the matter, Union County Prosecutor Theodore J. Romankow revealed that the State Police had requested the number of "transient" gang members in Berkeley Heights. The municipal officer who responded to the survey included in the official response those motorcycle gang members who attended the annual Feast of Mt. Carmel.

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Even though the officer complied with the technical definition of transient gang member, these gang members were affiliated with the Pagan and Hell's Angels motorcycle groups. They do not live or work in Berkeley Heights and were in and out of town on the same evening.

Chief Mathis says that residents should not be alarmed by the survey. “I live in Berkeley Heights and have raised my kids here. I walk the streets here and I feel safe doing so. It is a great community.”

Mathis, who was sworn in as Chief last year, is a longtime resident of Berkeley Heights. “In the 26 years I have been a police officer, we have had zero gang-related crimes connected to the Feast at Mt. Carmel. It is a great event for the town and I bring my family each year.”

Months prior to the Feast, which is held in mid-July, the Berkeley Heights Police Department coordinates security with event organizers.“Though we have never had a problem, we are prepared for any type of incident,” Mathis says.

Bruno, who has lived in Berkeley Heights for 17 years, echoes Mathis’ sentiments about the event: “The Mt. Carmel event has been in our town for over 100 years.  The organizers do good work and they just recently renovated the Little Flower Catholic Church in town. The festival is widely attended. We have Union county police on hand, it is well-protected and there have never been any problems with the event at all.”

According to Prosecutor Romankow, there are three verified gang members in town. However, the Berkeley Heights Police Department is watchful of their presence. “We know them, we know where they are and what they look like. We are aware of what they do all the time. We train, plan and know what goes on in the community,” Mathis says.

Bruno says the presence of three gang members should not be cause for concern in town:  “I know that the Police Department keeps the members under surveillance, and as far as I am aware, they have not done anything wrong.”

According to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, the presence of gang members is not unique to Berkeley Heights or Union County. In 2010, gang members were reported in each of the 21 counties in the state. While the number of criminal gang members slightly increased since the last State Police survey in 2007, Union County’s numbers remained largely the same.

“Our police do a great job keeping the town safe,” Bruno said. “Last year we were named the safest town in Union County by a state- wide evaluation.   We have one of the lowest crime rates per thousand residents in the state and lowest in Union County,” he said.

Prosecutor Romankow says that his office and the police departments are keenly aware of criminal threats and they are committed to keeping the residents of all Union County municipalities safe through a combination of smart policing, intelligence gathering and plans of action.

“It is up to all of us to make sure our towns are the places we want them to be. If you see something, do not hesitate to contact the police and speak up. Only by all of us working together will we be able to keep our towns, county and country safe from the threat of gangs,” he says.

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