Pubdate: Mon, 11 Jun 2007
Source: Herald News (West Paterson, NJ)
Copyright: 2007 North Jersey Media Group Inc.
Author: Ed Beeson
Bookmark: (Policing - United States)


PASSAIC -- Residents of Speer Village say they are chafing under the 
authority of a Passaic police officer who told them he's the new 
sheriff in their town.

Many who live here, in the city's largest public housing complex, say 
a pair of city police officers recently assigned to patrol the 
grounds ticket, harass and arrest residents who feel they are doing 
nothing wrong. One officer in particular, Officer Alex Castellon, who 
resident leader Rene Griggs said introduced himself as the new 
sheriff, is the focus of many residents' ire.

"His tone and his attitude were not professional. It was very nasty," she said.

Last week, residents delivered a petition to Castellon's supervisor, 
asking the police department to reassign the officer.

Passaic Housing Authority Director Bill Snyder said he was concerned 
by the complaints. But he said the persistent drug, gang and 
quality-of-life issues at Speer Village demand an aggressive level of 
enforcement if they are to be overcome.

Yet residents say that Castellon and his partner, Officer Thomas 
Ragsdale, who were assigned to the beat in February, have quickly 
made themselves unwelcome here. They complain that the officers 
monitor their comings and goings like hawks watching prey. They 
complain that they write tickets for offenses such as stubbing out 
cigarettes on the ground, even though there are no proper ashtrays on 
site. They complain that when arrests are made, the suspects are 
roughed up and thrown to the ground.

"C'mon. I know this is government property," one resident, Joann 
Jackson, said, "but we don't have martial law."

Snyder, who joined the Passaic Housing Authority last July, said 
crime problems have persisted at Speer because in the past management 
has been lax.

"The situation now," he said, "is I don't back off."

He said at the behest of residents, he has asked police to 
aggressively ticket the parking lot. He said he has formulated a list 
of drug offenders who will be arrested for defiant trespass if they 
enter Speer Village. He has instituted a one-strike eviction policy 
for residents arrested on charges of drugs or violent crime.

He said he has 18 evictions scheduled.

Still, residents say officers seem to view many here, especially 
young men, as criminals. Percy Williams, 17, says the two officers 
have accused him of being a drug dealer, when he says he is just a 
high school student.  Another resident, Joshua Gathers, 20, said a 
diabetic friend once visited him only to be asked by the officers, 
who looked at the insulin injection marks on his arm, "How long you 
been clean for?"

"It might sound trivial," Griggs, the resident leader, said, "but it 
builds up into frustration."

And tickets and court dates ultimately mean lost wages for low-income 

Some residents say they have been intimidated when they protested the 
police. When lifelong resident Yolanda Jiles, 36, began circulating a 
petition requesting Castellon be removed from his post, she said the 
officer began questioning anyone he suspected of signing the petition.

The residents' concerns about the two officers came to a head last 
Wednesday when Jiles presented the petition, and the 266 signatures 
she obtained, to Sgt.  Manuel Cruz, Ragsdale and Castellon's supervisor.

At the residents' request, Cruz and Ragsdale attended a meeting to 
address criticism of the officers' conduct.  Castellon did not appear.

While 20 residents voiced their concerns in near shouts, Cruz sat at 
a table before them. Ragsdale stood to the side, with his arms behind 
his back and a slight smile on his face.

Cruz did not try to mediate the debate.

"Like I said, I'm here to gather information," Cruz said, holding the 
manila envelope that contained the resident's petition.

Chief among voiced concerns was the way officers park their cruiser 
in the emergency lanes near one of the playgrounds. Residents spoke 
of mothers running to grab children playing in the patrol car's path. 
Ragsdale defended the tactic, saying the emergency lane gave him a 
vantage point on apartment towers notorious for their drug trafficking.

After about an hour, Cruz called the meeting to a close.

"Real quick. Listen," he said, holding the petition. "I will pass 
this onto my commander. My commander will pass it onto his boss."

While some residents said they were glad to vent their frustration, 
they hoped to see some change, which might benefit both sides in the long run.

"We're not na to all of the problems in our development," said 
Griggs, the resident leader. But "with tactics like these, you could 
make the good resident turn a deaf ear to many of the bad things." 
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