Police director blames coronavirus rules for NJ city’s murder surge

Police union president Michael Schiaretti denied claims that police were at one point "not allowed" to make arrests


By Kevin Shea
nj.com

TRENTON, N.J. — Trenton Police Director Sheilah Coley on Wednesday laid much of the blame for the Capital City’s spike in violent crime this year on the coronavirus pandemic, claiming state guidance on police work caused Trenton cops to not make arrests for several months in the spring.

Last year at this time, city cops had made over 5,000 arrests. This year, though, the number stands at about 3,100.

Trenton Police Director Sheilah Coley speaks at a press conference held at Trenton Police headquarters on October 21, 2020.
Trenton Police Director Sheilah Coley speaks at a press conference held at Trenton Police headquarters on October 21, 2020. (Photo/NJ Advance Media for NJ.com/Michael Mancuso)

This occurred, she said, “because there was period of time when we were not allowed to arrest people and during that time crime was allowed to flourish in the city.”

“We’ve been trying to play catch up since then,” Coley said.

A spokesman for the state courts said no such directive was given.

The director made the comments with Mayor Reed Gusciora at a press event to discuss the Tuesday night murders of two brothers, ages 16 and 8, in East Trenton. Police and prosecutors say they have no motive, nor have they made any arrests.

The director discussed a myriad of enforcement issues in the city, and alternately took responsibility for the rising homicide rate - the city has 35, and is approaching the record 37 - and some of them caught the attention of city police officers, who reacted with bewilderment and anger.

Police union president Detective Michael Schiaretti was one of them, who said he was taken aback by the director’s comments that police were “not allowed” to make arrests.

“I really do not know what she is talking about,” he said.

Coley, in discussing the problems Trenton faces, and getting more community members to assist police, said: “Our enforcement is lacking and yes I will say that and yes it was COVID-driven."

She later said that a state directive instructed police to not make arrests, unless absolutely necessary, so as to not clog the court system. She said the directive came from the state courts system.

Coley, and Mayor Reed Gusciora, also said several state prisoners were set free due to the virus and were not properly supervised.

And at times, Coley seemed to blame her own police department for inaction, saying she will not tolerate police “riding by” crime anymore and will discipline police if necessary. The slow down in arrests occurred from March to June, she said.

“If this city is going to turn around and become safe, it won’t just be because of the actions, or the non actions of the Trenton Police Department,” she said.

Schiaretti said Trenton’s issue lay with the director.

Did police make basic physical adjustments during the pandemic? Absolutely, he said, like police everywhere, including asking people to come out of their homes to speak with officers, to having a set officer drive a vehicle for arrest transports and other physical distancing protocols.

But Coley made it seem like Trenton police laid down their duty, or stood down, and that did not happen, and is not happening, Schiaretti said.

Coley tinkered with the street crimes units' schedules so half of them were at home at any given time, which benched the officers whose presence deters crime, Schiaretti said.

He tried to warn her, he said, during a conference call, and she eventually hung up. The surge in crime, Schiaretti said, was a “direct correlation to that.”

Schiaretti said Coley has yet to formalize a real plan to deter or lower street crime, and when she talks accountability, it’s hollow.

“How do you hold someone accountable, when you haven’t told them what they’re supposed to be doing?”

To a reporter, Coley acknowledged that everyone wants a plan from her. “What is the plan? What is the plan? What is the plan? The plan is always to make the city safe,” she said, and listed how police officers need to do more, and so does the community.

“I came to a city filled with pride ... and I am not seeing a lot of pride,” Coley said.

(c)2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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