The state of gangs in Trenton
After 16-year-old Jah’vae Minney was shot and killed, pictures of him fanning cash and flashing street signs were shared across several social media platforms.
A picture of a memorial banner in honor of Minney’s death was displayed on the front page of The Trentonian, and the banner included the phrase “#116 Gang.”
Minney was gunned down near the corner of Prospect Street and Bellevue Avenue around 11 p.m. on June 26. When the story about his death was published with the aforementioned photographs, readers concluded that Minney was a gangbanger. In the July 2 edition of the newspaper, contributors to Back Talk assumed that Minney was killed because he was in a gang, and even accused him of flashing “gang signs” in a separate picture that was published alongside the story about his death. But police say those assumptions may be false.
“We’re getting calls from people saying that there’s an issue with Vae Gang or Twizzy Gang, but that’s not the case,” Detective Luis Baez of the Trenton Police Gang Unit said last week. “This is nothing more than his friends representing him and mourning his death. Everyone thinks this is a gang, but it’s not.”
Police officials say young people will often use various hashtags across social media that include the word “gang” while mourning the death of a friend or family member. Police say their intelligence has so far found no existence of the terms Vae Gang, Twizzy Gang, or 116 Gang before Minney’s death, and that the group as a whole is not involved in criminal activity. Police also say they have so far found no information suggesting that Minney was involved in drug dealing or any other type of criminal activity normally associated with gang membership.
“Every time there’s a passing of someone who was well liked, we see this trend,” Baez said. “Friends will use that person’s nickname as a ‘gang,’ or they’ll use a house number or the block where they hung out most as the name of a ‘gang.’ Friends will also represent whatever color the deceased wore most. But we don’t jump to conclusions and classify anyone as a gang member unless the identifiers are there. We would classify these people mourning his death as more of a street crew. But it’ll phase out after a couple of weeks and maybe show up again next year on the anniversary of his death.”
In regards to the picture of Minney flashing hand signs, police say it’s a typical pose that young people in urban cities use when taking pictures. In the picture, Minney is seen raising the pinky finger on his right hand, and his left hand forms the letter “L.” Police say the pinky pose means “I got money,” and the “L” means “I’ve got my gun nearby.” But Minney, police say, does not appear to have a reputation for carrying a gun or dealing drugs. Police believe that picture, and other pictures of Minney fanning cash, were merely the poses he used to fit in with peers.
“That’s a normal pose that boys make nowadays, but at this time I wouldn’t classify him as a gang member,” Baez said. “Maybe he’s trying to fit in with friends. We hear that he was a likable kid.”
Police acknowledged that some of the people rumored to associate with Minney may have questionable pasts. But Minney himself was trying to live a straight life, according to several people who spoke to The Trentonian. In fact, government officials say Minney applied for a summer job with the City of Trenton about 10 days before his death. His father Eric Parks said Minney also applied for another job, but was murdered before he had a chance to interview for the position.
“They actually called me a couple of days ago because he hadn’t contacted them about the interview,” Parks said. “I had to tell them that he was deceased.”
Minney was also an active member of Shiloh Baptist Church, which he attended on a regular basis for at least a year and a half.
“Jah’vae was active in our Thursday night high school fellowship, where we feed hundreds of young people weekly and provide recreational opportunities and engagement about spirituality,” the Rev. Darrell Armstrong said. “He was bright, motivated and spiritually inclined. I am extremely saddened, frustrated and angered by Jah’vae’s murder.”
The state of gangs in Trenton
Police say the current state of gangs in the capital city is not as it used to be from 2000 to 2005 when law enforcement faced a legitimate “gang war.” Gangs today are largely disorganized, police say, and street hustlers mostly look out for themselves, as opposed to adopting a gang ideology as they did 10 to 15 years ago.
According to the bylaws of most gangs, if someone asks a member if he or she belongs to a gang, that person is required to admit it. But police say most of the suspects they arrest deny being in a gang, and are instead part of a disorganized street crew that may have members who are not at all involved in criminal activity. Police say they also encounter people who initially claim to be in a gang, but when asked to recite their gang oath or name the leader of the gang, they don’t know that information.
“A lot of times we catch them in a bluff,” Baez said. “We don’t see a lot of commitment to gangs today, and there’s no leadership out there per se.”
Officials admit that most of the well-known gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, Netas and MS-13 have members based in Trenton. But police say the violence occurring on the city’s streets today are mostly related to personal arguments as opposed to gang-related disputes.
“We don’t have gangs fighting other gangs just because they’re rival groups,” Baez said. “Instead, we’ll have a Blood from one street beefing with a Blood from another street for petty personal reasons. They usually beef over a girl, or over a drug sale that took place on someone else’s territory. The violence here today is more personal and not gang-related.”
Police say it’s very common for street crews in Trenton to consist of several people who attended the same school and grew up protecting each other. Some members of a street crew may be involved in criminal activity, while others are not. Often times, police say, legitimate gang members will notice a street crew member making a name for himself in the drug game, and they’ll try and recruit that person into their organization.
“It’s all about the power of selling drugs,” Baez said. “The person flexing the most muscle is usually the person who is selling the most heroin, which is cheap. Kids are selling heroin for $3 and up, but the average price is $5 to $7 for a single glassine packet.”
Police say it’s difficult to know how many street crews are in Trenton because they often quickly fade away, and many of the members are not involved in criminal activity. But police estimate that gangs and street crews in Trenton each have about 15 to 25 members who range between the ages of 16 and 25.
“Some of them walk away from the game in their late 20s, but a lot of them don’t make it to age 30,” Baez said. “It’s a shame.”
How to tell if a child is in a gang
Law enforcement officials don’t label individuals as gang members unless specific identifiers are present. For example, legitimate members will attend organizational meetings and admit to being in a gang when asked. They also draw gang symbols on notebooks or other property, and display gang tattoos on various parts of their body. Most gang members are also given a manifesto, police say, which outlines the bylaws of the organization and lists the names of other gang members and leaders. Police urge parents to look for those signs. Adults should also monitor whether kids are returning home with expensive clothing that wasn’t purchased by a parent or guardian. And to prevent young people from joining gangs, police advise parents and guardians to involve kids in other activities such as sports and after school programs.
“A lot of parents don’t know who their kids are hanging out with,” Baez said. “Parents should check their son’s and daughter’s body. It’s amazing how many times we arrest someone and the parents have no clue the child has tattoos.”
As of press time Sunday, police still had not developed any suspects for the murder of Jah’vae Minney. Anyone with information about the killing is asked to call the Mercer County Homicide Task Force at (609) 989-6406 or contact the Trenton Police confidential tip line at (609) 989-3663. Individuals may also call the Trenton Crime Stoppers tip line at (609) 278-8477. Those wishing to text a tip can send a message labeled TCSTIPS to Trenton Crime Stoppers at 274637.