In what has to be the one of the lamest excuses for not advising the public to be on the lookout for a couple of suspected carjackers; 2 state lawmakers are taking exception to the displaying of the suspects’ mugshots on highly visible billboards for fear it indicts an entire community.

Assemblywomen Bonnie Watson Coleman and Grace Spencer are all for fighting the epidemic of carjacking in their community.

However, since the suspects are African American, they feel that portraying their mugshots sends the wrong message in the wake of the Trayvon Martin affair; keying on the suggestion that skin color alone is the determining factor in the crime they are accused of committing.

Two state lawmakers are upset with the decision to include mugshots of two African-American convicts on anti-carjacking billboards that went up this week as part of a law enforcement effort in Essex County to stem the surging tide of gunpoint attacks on unsuspecting drivers.

Assemblywomen Grace Spencer (D-Essex) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer) praised state and federal officials for highlighting a crime they say has reached "epidemic proportions" in Essex County.

But, they say, billboards that include a mugshot of an African-American convict against a backdrop of a spartan prison cell sends the wrong message to a community still smarting over the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the suggestion skin color alone should render young men suspect.

"The message should not be to watch out for African-American men with dreadlocks because they are carjackers," Spencer said. "It’s just not the right message."

She said other high-profile, anti-crime campaigns like those targeting insurance fraud did not include the mugshots of offenders.

"Certainly there is a better way to get this important message across without potentially vilifying an entire segment of the population," Spencer said.

Authorities say they knew the the mugshots might leave some with the wrong impression but said they went ahead with the campaign anyway because they wanted to accurately portray a crime in which nearly 90 percent of defendants are black and the majority of victims are minorities.

"We are sensitive to the issues raised by the assemblywomen and have reached out to them to discuss their concerns," U.S. Attorney Paul J. Fishman and Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray said in a joint statement today. "Carjacking in Essex County has real consequences for real people. Hundreds of victims were carjacked in the county in the last year."

One of the the billboards features convicted carjacker Jahlil Thomas, who is serving nearly 22 years in prison, beside the words: "Seconds to carjack. Years of hard time."

Thomas, 23, is serving one of the lengthiest sentences for a New Jersey carjacking. He was convicted of stealing a Lincoln Continental at gunpoint in 2011 and then, armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, stealing a Dodge Durango before leading police on a high-speed chase.

"Certainly there is a better way to get this important message across without potentially vilifying an enitre segment of the population," Spencer said.

Prosecutors say he is someone whose face is well known in the community they’re trying to reach. "Showing an actual defendant — selected based on his conduct and sentence — has a greater deterrent effect than words alone," the statement by Fishman and Murray said.
Essex County is on pace to surpass 400 carjackings for the third year in a row, cementing its place as the state’s carjacking capital. Nearly 80 percent of those take place in Newark.

Authorities say the surge is being fueled by brazen young offenders willing to use a gun with little concern for the consequences. They say some do it for the thrill of it while others are members of sophisticated criminal gangs with the ability to ship stolen cars overseas within hours.

While I might agree that mugshots of suspects accused of insurance fraud might not appear on billboards, the fact that carjacking has reached epidemic proportions in their respective communities alone should trump any other considerations.



I believe these 2 legislators do their respective communities a disservice by not displaying their mugshots. Their priorities over the sensitivity of the suspected carjackers portrayals has blinded them to protecting the community from these individuals.

Should the Essex County billboards seeking suspected carjackers continue to display their mugshots?