SOMERSET, NJ – Somerset County Freeholder Director Shanel Robinson didn’t shy away from accepting responsibility for the violence troubling Franklin Township at a town hall on Tuesday night.
She laid the blame at the feet of elected officials, saying that they’ve not been as accessible as they could be, and urged the community to reach out and, as she says, “Do the ask.”
“I can say without a shadow of a doubt that we as elected officials in the public, those elected to do the work, have failed you,” she said. “And I’m one of those leaders that will be vulnerable and say we made mistakes. But we cannot do the work without each one of you.”
After multiple homicides in the past year – and three separate shootings over the last two days of December – county and local officials met with residents to share what law enforcement is doing to address the wave of violence plaguing Franklin Township.
Somerset County Prosecutor Michael H. Robertson, Somerset County Chief of Detectives and Officer in Charge of the Franklin Police Department John Fodor, Township Manager Robert Vornlocker and Franklin Township Public Schools Superintendent John Ravally answered questions from residents at the meeting as various Franklin Township elected officials watched from the audience.
Robinson spoke at the end of the meeting to a sparsely-filled auditorium at the Franklin Middle School Hamilton Street Campus after some residents said that their questions remained unanswered as the meeting came to a close.
One resident, who lives on King Road – where police responded to a shooting on Dec. 31 that authorities said left a 70-year-old man with a gunshot wound to the leg – was frustrated that her question about the township addressing potential post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in residents living in areas tormented by frequent shootings went unanswered.
“I have an elderly lady across the street, she’s afraid to go out. I just had surgery but I take her garbage and recycling out because she’s afraid to walk out of that house,” she said. “You guys have not done anything for us on those streets. Come by and talk to us to see what we need.”
Her fears were shared by a woman who said she lived in the house that a 25-year-old man drove his vehicle into after being shot in the area of Petty Road.
“That young man that died in my house had nothing,” she said. “I’ve got children who won’t even walk to the store, which is right up the block from where I live.”
She decried a lack of economic opportunity in the area that leaves many in the township with few options outside of crime, especially teenagers and young adults.
Fodor said that in response to the increase in violence in Franklin Township, county and local law enforcement created a crime suppression task force that made dozens of arrests in January.
“We really ramped it up in December and January,” he said. “In January, we’re close to 30 arrests of drugs, guns and things of that nature. We recognize there’s a problem and we put that team dedicated to Franklin Township.”
Fodor also said that the fears of gangs in the township are overblown. The prosecutor’s office has identified two groups of individuals who are targeting each other and he hesitated to label them as gangs.
“What we’re seeing here in these cases of the shootings is certain groups of individuals that are retaliating, they’re not looking for random houses to shoot, they’re looking for one another,” said Fodor. “Now are they always correct in where they think that other group may or may not be? They are sometimes incorrect and people do get hurt but what we have in Franklin Township is two groups of individuals that we have identified and are currently investigating.”
Fodor and Robertson stressed that much of the headway law enforcement has made in solving these crimes has come from information provided by residents, and said that they hope to continue building better relationships with the community.
But questions were raised at the meeting about the hiring practices of the police department and its struggle to hire minority candidates to better reflect the communities they serve.
It was alarming to Fodor when the township only had one African American enrolled in the alternate route program to join the police department, and said that the county and township are working with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives to address the issue of diversity in the department.
The alternate route program, as opposed to the traditional route to becoming a police officer, requires a potential police recruit to pay their own way though the police academy on the hope they will be hired after graduating. Traditionally, police departments pay for candidates to go through the academy and hire them when they graduate.
The alternate route program can be a financial burden to potential candidates because they can’t work while in the academy, a problem Vornlocker said the township is aware of and working to overcome.
“The township could sponsor (potential candidates) at Raritan Valley Community College for an associate’s degree that could lead to either a placement on our police department of an alternate route program,” he said.
The most recent shootings came during a time of change for the police department while the township reforms the leadership structure of the force.
Back in July, the county prosecutor’s office took over operations at the Franklin Township Police Department following the resignation of its two ranking officers – former chief Richard Grammar and former Captain Gregory Borlan – amid controversy over officers abusing time off to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in extra pay.
After the resignation of Grammar and Borlan, the township council voted to get rid of the chief of police position and replace it with the combination of a civilian public safety director to handle administrative functions and an officer in charge to oversee law enforcement.
Vornlocker, the township manager, said that he hopes the township will take back control of the police department in March.
“I would anticipate sometime in March and then there’ll be a move to transition the county prosecutor returning to his office and the township taking back control of the police department,” he said.
Vornlocker and Superintendent Ravally both said they hope that the currently under construction youth center on Louis Street could help address the issues facing the community.
The 24,000 square-foot, $11 million building – a longtime passion project of Franklin Councilwoman Kimberly Francois – is set to open September and will provide educational opportunities and job training for residents, according to Vornlocker.
“This building is not just about recreation, this building is about education, it’s about counseling and social services,” he said.
“We’re looking to provide not only a fun environment but also an educational environment and a safe environment for kids to just drop in and have fun and learn and if need be get the counseling that they need to make them productive members of society. Then there’s a discussion with workforce development at the county level to come in and provide job training and all of these things go to what we can all do to break this cycle of violence.”
Ravally, who leads the township’s schools, echoed the idea that ending the violence would take collaboration from the entire town and encouraged the residents in attendance to prepare for a long road ahead. He said that the township must commit to long-term programs that will help the students who are most at risk.
He reminded those in attendance that the vast majority of students stay out of trouble, but that doesn’t mean those few that do should be forgotten.
“Eighty-five to 90 percent of the students that are at the high school do not get into any trouble whatsoever,” he said. “But what I can tell you is there’s about 10 percent that do. We need to hear from you so we can figure out how we can serve that 10 percent. We can’t forget about that 10 percent.”
By putting residents in front of local and county leaders from law enforcement, education and government, officials hope they can create a holistic solution to the violence currently troubling Franklin Township.
Officials hope to use community meetings similar to Tuesday night’s to gather input from residents to create a holistic solution to the violence troubling Franklin Township.
“I don’t know if this needs to be said and it’s not me being sarcastic, but violence – whether it’s anywhere in the state or this county – it’s not just law enforcement’s problem,” said Somerset County Prosecutor Michael H. Robertson. “It’s my problem. It’s your problem. It’s the town’s problem and it’s the school’s problem. So we have to come together in order to figure out how to be proactive and preventative.”
Editor's note: Check back this week for the video story.
TAPinto Franklin/Somerset is independently owned and operated by Malik A. Lyons FHS Class of 93’ Graduate.
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