Hector Robles visits his Aunt Luz almost every day now.

He has to, he said, because after more than a decade of living in the quiet and uneventful 100 block of West Grape Street in Vineland, Luz Robles, sick and in her 60s, is scared.

In the span of about three weeks, two men were fatally shot, and a third person arrested, some witnesses said with unnecessary force and the use of a biting K-9, near her tidy bungalow.

Luz Robles doesn’t know if she wants to live on the block anymore, Hector Robles said.

“She’s a little afraid,” he said. “She put new doors in. She locks her windows.”

Life changed last month not only for Luz Robles but for other people living on the block.

Residents were on their front porches March 8, watching as police converged after Vineland men Kevin Peterson and Damien Mills were shot to death in a car. On March 31, the block again filled with people who saw police subdue Phillip White, whose erratic behavior, which included yelling in the street, prompted a police response. White eventually died in custody en route to a medical center.

Six people died in Cumberland County from violence so far this year. The latest death occurred May 14, when a Millville man died of injuries he received in a fight outside a Vineland restaurant. There were 16 slayings in the county last year — 12 more than in 2013. Bridgeton police also fatally shot a man in December.

All this happened in a county with crime rates that dwarf state averages. While State Police statistics set New Jersey’s 2013 crime rate at 21.8 incidents per 1,000 residents, the rate is about double for Cumberland County and Vineland, triple for Bridgeton and quadruple for Millville. The 2013 crime rates are the latest available from the State Police for a full year.

Hector Robles, a construction worker who also lives in Vineland, said he has noticed during his visits to his Aunt Luz on West Grape Street that the recent violence seems to have done more than just unnerve residents on the block. The tree-lined street, with its decades-old modest homes and mostly tidy yards, seems busier, he said.

“Now, they look out for each other,” he said of the residents. “They tend to come out on the street more and watch what happens. They speak more to each other than before.”

While residents were reluctant to talk about the effect of the recent violence, some said they have also seen a change among the people who live there.

“They want to see what’s going on,” said Doris Gonzalez, 65, who has lived on the block since 1981. “They’re being cautious.”

“More aware,” said resident Tony Vega, adding that the additional interaction showed “we all respect each other.”

“There are no enemies here,” he said.

Freddie Martinez, whose mother lives on the block, agreed, saying the violence involved people who didn’t live on West Grape Street.

“They come from somewhere else,” he said.

Peterson, Mills and White lived in other Vineland neighborhoods.

* * *

While the events were all tragic, what seems important is that they are causing people to react to the violence, said Chris Melde, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.

“Crime and deviance can be good in that it awakens the community’s collective consciousness,” Melde said. “People come together to restate what’s acceptable and unacceptable. It’s sort of a rallying cry for some people.”

Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said it’s difficult to find a common thread for the fatal violence. The deaths have occurred in rural, suburban and urban areas, with diverse victims and causes, she said.

“When I look at it, I can’t say it was concentrated in one area,” she said.

But people throughout the county seem to be more willing to deal with the violence.

Last year, Greenwich Township resident Renee Brecht was a prime organizer of Millville’s “code blue” program, which provided the homeless with a warm place to sleep on bitterly cold winter nights.

Brecht now leads an effort to unite business, government and faith-based and nonprofit organizations to help neighborhoods. Brecht said it involves getting organizations that do good works on their own — even something as simple as cleaning trash off streets — to work collectively to help reduce violence and poverty.

The effort is still in its infancy, and Brecht said it could take some time to determine its success. “You don’t change people overnight,” she said. “They’re going to have to see some positive things happen before they jump on the bandwagon.”

Brecht is in part working through Millville’s Peace in the City organization, formed last spring to help reduce violence and poverty in Millville. Leader David Ennis, a pastor of In His Presence Worship Center and a Millville city commissioner, said interest has grown amid the county’s violence.

“I can honestly say that, for the first time in about 20 years (as a Millville resident), I do sense that there is stirring among the people,” Ennis said. “Until the residents come to the table, we’re not going to really correct some of the issues that are negatively affecting us. People recognize that there is a reason to fight back.”

In Millville, the fighting back began in July, after a five-week span of violence left cars and buildings riddled with bullets and four people dead. Since then, residents in the 200 block of East Mulberry Street in Millville’s Center City neighborhood have formed an unofficial neighborhood watch. Residents walk the block on an irregular basis, and more frequently call police about suspicious activity.

Millville police said that kind of public help increased after sweeps of troubled neighborhoods by local, county, state and federal authorities. Vineland and Millville have always patrolled their Center City areas more heavily than other neighborhoods. Vineland has not said whether it beefed up patrols lately in any specific neighborhood, but Millville did during the second half of last year, and still pays extra attention to the Center City and 3rd Ward neighborhoods.

Vineland doesn’t have any truly organized groups such as Peace in the City, City Council President Anthony Fanucci said. Many city residents simply turn to their local clergy for guidance when situations get difficult, he said.

Fanucci said while “you always want people to be involved,” some caution is needed when it comes to organized groups. “You want them to … work in conjunction with your local law enforcement and community faith-based organizations,” he said.

* * *

Vineland’s Tony Vega said he doesn’t want to lose the 100 block of West Grape Street to future violence. He already doesn’t allow his two young children to play outside at night.

Vega said he feels a little better about the future since more people are becoming involved, and at least one neighbor installed surveillance cameras on his house. The block could still benefit from a few more street lights to better illuminate the neighborhood, he said. More police patrols also would be helpful, he said.

Freddie Martinez said the neighborhood needs more activities for its youth. There are few playgrounds in the area, he said.

And while Vega said he generally supports police, he also is worried about the actions of some law-enforcement officers. That includes cases that attracted national attention, and local cases, such as the one involving White’s death, he said.

“The way things are going on with the cops, it concerns me,” Vega said. “They’re supposed to protect and serve.”

Webb-McRae said she is aware of what seems to be a growing mistrust of law enforcement, especially among different ethnic groups. Webb-McRae has been the focus of some of that mistrust, with civil-rights groups saying she can’t be trusted to perform impartial investigations of deaths in the county linked to law-enforcement actions.

However, Webb-McRae, who is black, said dealing with race and law enforcement is a “relevant conversation to have.”

“The core thing that we have to do is lessen the parts of the community that have distrusts, and build respect and relationships on both sides,” Webb-McRae said. “There are an overwhelming majority of police officers who do the right thing every day.”

She said she will advance a dialogue between residents and law enforcement in the county, and push residents to take more interest in the safety of their neighborhoods.

“You have to build the relationship so they feel comfortable talking with law enforcement and that law enforcement will see things through,” Webb-McRae said. “We have to have more people saying, ‘Not in my neighborhood, not in my community, not where I live.’”

Hector Robles said he knows his aunt and her neighbors don’t want any more violence. Whether the neighborhood returns to its quiet state depends on many factors, including residents and police working together, he said.

“Nobody wants to be the next victim,” he said.



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