By David Cruz
Like jobs and economic activity, hope is in short supply in Camden City these days. Thirty-nine murders so far this year. July’s 13 murders are the most for the month since a serial killer struck in July of 1948.
“We have experienced over the past month a gang war that has spiked up,” says Police Chief Scott Thomson.
Thomson says despite the rash of murders, including some brazen day-time shootings recently, Camden is bending but not breaking. He says help is on the way.
“I think right now there is an aggressive move towards regionalization as quickly as possible,” he says. “Regionalization will give us as many cops, double the number of officers than we currently have now, which puts us in a better position, in a more forward-leaning position to securing our neighborhoods and our streets.”
After massive layoffs decimated the city’s department last year, the return of many of those cops was offset by retirements and transfers to other police departments. Detective John Williamson says the force of 270 officers is stretched beyond the limit, fighting against a criminal element that simply continues to grow.
“You’re talking about one of the poorest cities in the nation, and there are no jobs,” says Williamson. “Where there is poverty, there is also crime, so unless the chief knows of some sort of job boom that’s coming that’s going to give the residents some new opportunity of hope, I just don’t see it.”
In Lanning Square, a poor and working class section of the city where the crime and homicide rate have actually shrunk over the past several years, hope has dared to show its face. Pino Rodriguez is an unofficial community activist there. He says residents have taken it upon themselves — with no help from the city — to improve their own community, one home at a time. It’s called the block supporter program.
“Everyone is responsible; not one person. So if you’re a block supporter, which you normally are because you come out and clean in front of your house, you usually care about the front of your home, so you’re already supporting the block,” he says. “If we can make everyone a block supporter on the block so you can care about your own homes and helping your neighbor and even your neighbor on the next block, you support each other’s block and help keep crime down.”
But Lanning Square is an exception. Mayor Dana Redd was unavailable to speak to us today but her plan for a regionalized police force is still facing a legal challenge. The union says a larger force is a good idea, but that these new officers will have no experience in urban policing and will have to be trained on the job. Meanwhile, the murders continue, seemingly unabated.
In doing some research for this report, we came across a newspaper article about the Camden murder rate. The report noted that most of the murder victims and their attackers were young men, mostly black and Latino, mostly involved in drugs or some other criminal activity, and that most of the murders were committed using a handgun. That report was written in 1992. Twenty years later it seems not much has changed in the city of Camden.