Trenton Detective Edgar Rios, left, and James Letts
Photo credit: AP Photo/Mercer County Prosecutor's Office
TRENTON, N.J. -- As officials prepared Thursday to announce a law enforcement surge to combat a spurt in violent crime in New Jersey's capital, the urgency of the move was shockingly underscored by gunfire that left two city police officers wounded, one critically, and the attacker dead.
The officers were shot as they followed up on a domestic-violence call on Hobart Avenue in the East Ward.
Eric McNeil, 24, a recently freed convict, surprised the officers when he emerged from his former girlfriend's house just before 9 a.m. and fired, Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph L. Bocchini Jr. said. One officer returned fire, killing McNeil, he said.
The officers had a warrant to arrest McNeil on an assault complaint by the girlfriend, but neither they nor she knew McNeil was inside, Bocchini said.
At a news conference hours later, acting State Attorney General John Hoffman and other officials detailed a two-pronged initiative, which they said was in response to a recent spate of fatal shootings.
Under the plan, plainclothes and uniformed state troopers will be deployed to high-crime areas, specifically in the East and West Wards. Officials also plan to focus on gun violence by pressing for longer prison terms for serious gun offenses.
"From this point on there will be no easy or simple deals for individuals with serious criminal histories, gang affiliations, or drug dealers who are carrying guns in public," Hoffman said, adding it was intolerable that the city was in "war zone conditions."
About 50 state troopers were deployed Thursday and in an early morning sweep arrested 15 fugitives. The officers will remain in the area for three weeks, Hoffman said.
Mayor Tony Mack, who is under indictment on corruption charges, welcomed the troopers. Layoffs two years ago severely depleted the city's police force.
"We need their help," Mack said. This month he wrote to Gov. Christie asking for $10 million to hire 75 more officers. "Two officers were shot and this continues an onslaught of violence in our city over the last year or so," he said.
Christie has referred to Mack as "the indicted mayor of Trenton" and has refused to deal directly with Mack.
Community activists pointed to the latest violence as illustrative of the city's plight.
"It's a sad day. The violence in the city of Trenton continues to escalate," said Juan Martinez, a 53-year resident. "Today, luckily there were no kids playing on the street. The police go to do their jobs; the guy just turns on them."
Tracey Syphax, 50, an entrepreneur, said the city was in a "state of crisis."
He said many ex-offenders struggle to find jobs and housing, and return to committing crimes.
"I understand the streets. I know what it's about," he said, alluding to his own past as a drug addict who served time decades ago on drug and weapons charges before embarking on a business career.
Syphax, who owns a real estate development company and a construction company, said that in January a bullet pierced the plate glass window of his office on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
"You have criminals that know we lost 105 cops. It's basically crime and mayhem in the city. I believe it's a direct correlation to the leadership here."
In 2011, citing a budget crunch, Mack laid off 105 police officers -- nearly one-third of the department. Last fall, the city rehired 15 of the officers with a federal grant.
Trenton, a city of 85,000 people, has recorded 28 homicides so far this year, not including two police-involved shootings, including Thursday's. There were a record 31 homicides in 2005.
The city is one of many urban centers in the state to be wracked by violent crime, though it ranks behind Camden, a city of 77,000 that has recorded 31 homicides this year and had a record 67 last year.
Trenton Police Director Ralph Rivera Jr. said other shootings were also up this year, but authorities could not immediately provide exact statistics.
Bocchini made a point to distinguish domestic violence from the spiraling gun violence in the streets, saying that no matter the size of a police force, it cannot prevent domestic incidents.
"When you go out to investigate a domestic violence dispute, you never know what's going to happen," the prosecutor said. "It can become volatile."
Particularly, he added, if someone is "crazy and has a gun."
Thursday's shooting ruptured the morning quiet of their neighborhood, Hobart Avenue residents said.
Bocchini said that McNeil broke into his ex-girlfriend's home sometime before 2 a.m. and punched and kicked her: "He stabbed and killed the victim's three-week-old puppy."
Officers responded around 2:30 a.m. and took her to the police station.
McNeil, who was released from state prison May 25 after serving time for a 2010 armed robbery, fled, Bocchini said.
Detective Edgar Rios, a 30-year veteran, and Detective James Letts, a 15-year veteran, escorted the victim back home at 8:43 a.m.
The officers insisted that she remain in their car while they ensured she could return safely. But no sooner did they get out of their vehicle than they came under fire. They yelled to the victim to run, which possibly saved her life, relatives and neighbors said.
"They saw [McNeil] but he fired before they had a chance to return fire," Bocchini said.
Letts was hit in the right shoulder and abdomen. He underwent surgery at Capital Health Regional Medical Center and is expected to be released in a few days, Bocchini said.
Rios was hit twice and "two bullets penetrated him, injuring several internal organs," Bocchini said. Rios was in critical but stable condition.
A woman who declined to give her name but said she was McNeil's former girlfriend's aunt said McNeil, who lived on nearby Garfield Street, and the young woman had been going out for about a month. He had started beating her in recent days, the aunt said.
Another woman who also would not give her name said Rios was known in the neighborhood as a highly professional and caring detective who treated people with respect.
Copyright 2013 - The Philadelphia Inquirer
McClatchy-Tribune News Service