Nearly 50 people have been slain this year in Camden, N.J., which is approaching its record of 58 homicides, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. The vast majority of the deaths have been associated with drugs and the drug trade. A city once associated with the poet Walt Whitman and the industrial greatness of a nation has for decades been synonymous with crime. Into this morass steps Edwin Figueroa, the fifth chief of police in eight years and the first Hispanic to head the department.
After a five-year drop in many violent crimes, the numbers have been ticking upward in the last four – approaching or exceeding the worst of the crack epidemic years in the early ’90s. “This is alarming because it is a good time in Camden,” Mayor Gwendolyn Faison said. “There was a time when people wouldn’t come to the city. Now we have developers knocking on the door.” While few can explain the upswing, the reasons for the entrenched crime are legion: drugs, poverty, lack of education and services, among other factors. The police have an alphabet soup of programs and tactics, but the crime persists. The department is on pace to make 10,000 arrests this year – this in a city of only 80,000. “We cannot arrest ourselves out of this situation,” Figueroa told a public-safety hearing. “There is no silver bullet.” Said resident Doreen Boyd: “These kids nowadays are violent. They don’t understand the repercussions. They’re just kids. They carry guns and watch SpongeBob on TV.” The Walter Rand Institute of Rutgers University has studied the city’s aggravated assaults with a gun – basically shootings that don’t end in death. Fifty-five percent were committed by males between the ages of 18 and 24, and a similar number of the victims fell in that age group. Both victims and suspects had an average of three prior arrests, most commonly for drugs. And most victims refuse to cooperate with police. “When civil law is weak, then street justice becomes the preferred way to go,” said Elijah Anderson, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist. “The underground economy is very strong. Reacting violently to disputes is really prized.”