Trenton Housing Authority Employs Ex-Cons as Security Guards

By Michael Hill

W. Oliver Leggett is the executive director of the Trenton Housing Authority. He made the decision to hire some ex-convicts as security guards for tenants of the authority’s 1,500 units.

What kind of crimes are we talking about, they were incarcerated for?

“I never even looked at that,” Leggett said. “My thing was that we reviewed them to see whether or not the kinds of issues that they were involved with were not going to be deleterious to what we were doing. So we gave them drug tests, things like that, so that they were not going to be deleterious to our community. And that’s basically it.”

There are people that are going to listen to that and say, are they rapists, are they robbers, are they convicted murderers?

“Yes. I don’t know. I mean, my idea is this. That everyone has an opportunity to commit a crime, not to commit a crime. I was lucky enough to not have the opportunity to be confronted by a system that allowed me to serve time for any reason. How do I know what the issues that I confronted as a young man would not have set me on the wrong direction?” Leggett said.

“I’m all for giving people a second chance,” said George Muschal.

Laundromat owner and Trenton Councilman George Muschal spent nearly 40 years policing the city.

“Somewhere along the line, you have to look. Security is top priority. You have to look at the individual’s record, what he has and what he’s going to do. You don’t put a criminal in a place where he’s got access to keys and everything that he can enter people’s apartments,” he said.

Samuel Frisby is a Mercer County freeholder and the CEO of the local YMCA.

“We passed legislation a couple years ago with ban the box and all this is doing is giving ban the box actual life. And so the challenge of banning the box, not being able to ask people the question, but then not hiring them because of their background defeats the whole purpose of the legislation,” he said.

Darren “Freedom” Green of Shiloh Community Development Corporation knows the ex-cons and says they served their time for drug offenses and must have opportunities to make a living.

“I’ve talked to young men and women who have filled out 60 to 70 applications and got no call back and we all know it’s because of their record. So again, when you have to ask yourself the question, if you’re putting people back into a community not giving them an opportunity to earn gainful employment, now they’re in survival mode, so what else can they do but crime and criminal activity? Mr. Leggett is offering an opportunity for these people to get gainful employment and one of the things that people don’t take notice of is when your back is against a wall, you know that you have a criminal record, you know you’ve applied for 60, 70 jobs and not gotten an opportunity, when somebody gives you one, you value it,” Green said.

Tenants seem to have some mixed opinions about the housing authority hiring ex-cons in security positions to protect them.

“It’s good. Good person,” said one man.

“Once a criminal, always a criminal,” said another.

Leggett doesn’t subscribe to that.

“I think that people ought to be open to the opportunity to be improving citizenry on the part of everybody,” he said.

Leggett says he accepts the heat he’s taken for hiring ex-cons as security guards.