A 55-year-old woman who lived in a Salem (City) Housing Authority apartment building was found stabbed to death in her residence this past Thursday.
Given our preoccupation with another topic these days, it was one of the few non-pandemic news stories to break through. The most violent crimes (along with non-COVID-19 celebrity deaths) seem to be the only items that can divert attention from the cascade of coronavirus content.
There’s no apparent connection between random street crime and the viral epidemic. Yet, how prepared are we for the possibility that this might cease to be true?
State Sen. Mike Testa, R-Cumberland, pushed the notion far beyond reasonable concern in his effort last month to get Gov. Phil Murphy to reopen gun stores as “essential businesses” after the governor left them off a list of retail locations that could stay open legally.
“Now that more police departments are reporting officers sick with the coronavirus, it’s increasingly clear that understaffed law enforcement agencies may not have the ability to respond immediately when a family needs help. Gov. Murphy can help protect New Jerseyans by opening gun stores and allowing citizens to protect themselves if needed,” Testa wrote.
A few days later, Murphy — reluctantly — allowed firearm retailers to reopen on a limited basis, but not based on Testa’s dystopian view of a lawless society with police so hobbled by illness that homeowners have no choice but to mete out their own justice.
Mostly, the governor was following guidelines issued by the federal Department of Homeland Security, which apparently considers personal firearms to be no less vital to human survival than food, water or medicine. Murphy also faced a federal lawsuit by the state’s Second Amendment Society.
As far as we know, law enforcement had no shortage of investigators to send to the apparent Salem City homicide. Nor were Mercer County authorities overwhelmed — not by coronavirus, anyway — by responding to two gun killings and five shooting injuries just on Sunday night.
Crime is not taking a holiday for stay-at-home edicts, and it’s likely to get worse during approaching warmer weather. An April 5 Philadelphia Inquirer print headline describing the opioid-ravaged Kensington neighborhood during the pandemic, read, “As arrests drop, the big change is drug dealers now wear masks.”
In New York City, where 18.6% of the department is out sick, police have had to limit responses to non-emergency calls. The percentage of ill officers remains much smaller in New Jersey but, as overall cases continue to increase, it’s not outlandish to think that an officer shortage could occur here.
This in no way legitimizes Testa’s prospective call to arms to protect one’s stash of freeze-dried survival food or ensure that looters don’t steal the lawn chairs, but it is reasonable for him to ask “what if?” half a town’s police officers are sidelined because of illness or quarantine.
While there have been detailed plans to bring in retired health care personnel and volunteers, much less has been heard about contingencies should the ranks of New Jersey police, firefighters and corrections officers become depleted.
How much could the National Guard, already doing some pandemic functions, be deployed? Have municipalities reviewed whether mutual aid pacts with police or fire units in nearby towns are up to date? How many retired officers could suit up immediately statewide in an emergency?
Pushed to the brink, citizens could take matters into their own hands in one of Testa’s Wild West scenarios. It would be better, and far less deadly, to know that the state is prepared as much as possible to address spot shortages of law-enforcement personnel.
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