After spending 24 years of my professional life practicing law in the field of criminal justice, I have seen my fair share of the carnage left behind by gun violence. While every shooting takes its toll, I have to say that the killing of 9-year-old Jennifer Trejo in her bedroom by a random shooting outside her home on July 17 in the city of Bridgeton and having over 100 children and parents witness the violent shooting death of a man at the end of a football practice in the city of Millville on Aug. 9 have deeply moved and shocked me.
As I spoke to over 100 kids and parents of the football association and offered grief counseling services to help them deal with the trauma of witnessing a violent shooting, I realized that we are all feeling traumatized by the senseless acts of violence that are occurring in the community.
Prosecutors are supposed to project strength and resolution in our quest to seek justice for individuals and the community. In that regard, I want to assure the community that investigators from both cities as well as from my office are doing everything in their power to solve these heinous crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice.
However, if I am willing to tell babies that it’s OK to feel sad and get help because they have experienced a traumatic event, then it is OK to tell the community that as a parent and a lifelong community member, I too am experiencing grief and stress due to these traumatic events. I know that some are saying that Cumberland County is a “war zone” and that they don’t wish to live here anymore. To that I would say, I could have chosen to live anywhere and prospered but I chose to return here and raise a family because of all the great things and people Cumberland County has to offer. I will not let criminals hold my community hostage.
Evil can only flourish when good people remain silent. We need witnesses to prove cases in court. A police officer on every corner is not what makes a community safe. It is people coming together, helping each other and dictating acceptable cultural and social norms for where they live. We as a community need to say “not on my block, not in my neighborhood, not in my city, not in my county.”
We as a community need to address the issues that lead to drug, gun and gang violence. It doesn’t start with crime, it starts with poverty and lack of resources, of jobs, of mental health and drug treatment services, etc.
Although it doesn’t get the attention from news media, we have been working on these issues for years. We have the Cumberland County Positive Youth Coalition that works on reducing juvenile delinquency and keeping kids out of the school-to-prison pipeline. We have CC THRIVE (Cumberland Collective To Help Reverse Inequality and Violence Everywhere), which will pump over $500,000 into the community for projects that reduce gang and gun violence in 2019. We have three active Police Athletic Leagues in Bridgeton, Vineland and Millville that not only focus on sports but focus on life skills. Do a search or scroll through our Facebook page and you will see the countless ways we are working to combat youth gang and gun violence.
In closing, death and life are in the power of the tongue. I choose to speak life into my community rather than death. When you hear someone speak ill of Cumberland County, counter with the positive things that are happening here. Focus your time and energy on just one little thing that improves the quality of life in Cumberland County rather than the things that bring us down. Together we can make Cumberland County what we want it to be ... even though we have to stop and cry sometime.
Jennifer Webb-McRae is Cumberland County prosecutor.