BRIDGETON — Police labels marked the spots where bullets struck a white house around midnight Tuesday at Church and Elmer streets, piercing the walls and fatally wounding 9-year-old Jennifer “Chikis” Trejo as she slept.
This city in the western part of Cumberland County is no stranger to violence, nor is the county, which was awarded federal funding last year to help combat it. Still, the death of a child was “the worst-case scenario,” said the County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae.
Trejo was the second person slain in the city so far this year, but violent crime from January through May was down from 83 to 77 reported incidents from the same time period last year, a difference of 7.2 percent, according to the Uniform Crime Report, which tracks crime data submitted by police departments throughout the state.
Cumberland County received a nearly $740,000 grant from the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency’s Safe and Thriving Communities program last year to combat gang and gun violence and its impact on youth in Vineland, Millville and Bridgeton. Webb-McRae calls the initiative Cumberland Collective to Help Reverse Inequality and Violence Everywhere, or CC THRIVE.
The grant has helped “to start to examine some of the other gaps in our society that cause people to get into the system that causes violence,” she said. “That causes the equation that leads to crime.”
She said the solution can’t just be punishment after the fact, but examining violence from a public health standpoint and talking about accessible treatment for mental health and addiction.
In an editorial last month, Webb-McRae asked what it will take for the community to take a stand against the violence, almost foreshadowing Trejo’s death.
“Every time there is a shooting, I sit back and wonder what will it take to awaken the conscience of our community,” she wrote. “Will it be the death of a beloved senior or a 5-year-old caught in the crossfire?”
Asked how she felt about the coincidence, Webb-McRae told The Press of Atlantic City in a phone interview Thursday it was her “worst nightmare.”
“I think that this case is that worse-case scenario,” she said. “I’m not blaming the community. What I’m saying is that this is everyone’s problem. Law enforcement cannot fix it for everyone.”
The first year of the grant is for planning, she said, with the next two years slated for implementing changes in policy or adding special programs to combat violence.
Asked whether Trejo’s death would come up during planning, she replied, “How can it not?”
For John Fuqua, 41, a local nonviolence advocate, violence in the city where he grew up is personal.
Fuqua lost both his nephew and cousin in 2008 to “senseless gang and gun violence,” he said.
No one was convicted in the case of his nephew’s murder, he said, because too few witnesses came forward.
“That motivated me,” he said. “I just realized that we couldn’t fathom the idea of losing another person to senseless violence.”
Since then, Fuqua has thrown himself into nonprofit work and community outreach, from talking to gang members directly about promoting peace and unity to speaking in schools about gun violence and coaching youth basketball programs that get kids to compete on the court instead of on the street.
In the wake of Trejo’s death, he said it’s time for the community to come together, to build a better relationship between police and the people.
“The responsibility is now on the community,” he said. “Start standing up and saying enough is enough.”