Mean Streets


April 2009 issue

One evening last August, a young man was riding a bicycle around Camden with a machine gun, looking for a man with whom he’d had a disagreement. A young woman called police, who say they searched the area for about 15 minutes but saw no one who fit the description. Three days later, the young man found his target: a local drug dealer. But the drug dealer saw him first and opened fire. The man on the bicycle sought cover behind a brick porch, pulled the machine gun out of his backpack and returned fire. Dozens of rounds were fired, but the two survived. A child caught in the crossfire didn’t. The four-year-old boy, who was clinging to his uncle, was fatally shot in the head. His mother, 21-year-old Stephanie Thompson, was the woman who had called police days earlier. The drug dealer was the four-year-old’s uncle.

“He was killed because he was clinging to his uncle,” says Jona Meyer, an associate professor of criminology at Rutgers University-Camden.

The young boy, Brandon Thompson, became victim number 38 in what is Camden’s second-bloodiest year on record. There were 52 murders in 2008; six behind the record set in 1995. In January, alone, there were 10 homicides. It was the city’s deadliest month ever.

For now, the violence has somewhat subsided, possibly due to beefed up police patrols and gang sweeps that netted 34 arrests last year, primarily of Bloods gang members. The spike in the murder rate set off alarms in the law enforcement community, but the incident that August evening was the galvanizing event. Police responded by putting more cops on the street and cracking down on drug and gang activity with a blitzkrieg of undercover buys, vehicle checkpoints, parole home visits and quality of life violations. At the start of March, there were only four homicides. That figure was 11 by this time last year. But authorities say it’s too early to tell whether the measures taken have licked the problem. Camden’s past was already checkered by gang violence, but it has grown worse with more gangs arriving from the northern part of the state into South Jersey and aggressively recruiting new members. The poverty and ready drug market in Camden make it a ripe target. And it comes at a time when Camden’s police department is rapidly losing members to early retirements, budget cuts and attrition.

Law enforcement officials concede Camden’s troubles run very deep, but the latest aggressive police efforts are a start.

“A pistol and cuffs are not the panacea for the problems that plague the city of Camden,” said Camden Police Chief John Scott Thomson. “There are social ills that plague the city that you can’t arrest your way out of.”

To understand how things could have gotten so bad in Camden, one need only drive through the city, parts of which look like war-torn Beirut from the 1980s. There are no hotels or supermarkets or movie theaters. Front porches are covered entirely with wrought iron bars, like one might see in South Central Los Angeles. Some houses are partially destroyed. Others are boarded up with plywood. There are streets that have homes and then large gaps where buildings are missing entirely, like a smile with large gaps where teeth are missing. Other streets have so few houses, they would be mistaken for empty lots but for the couple of homes that remain. In 2007, the U.S. Postal Service said 12 percent of Camden’s 31,000 properties were either vacant or had no status at all, meaning they were no longer occupied, had never been occupied, or the building no longer exists.

Just nine square miles, the city is relatively small compared to Philadelphia, across the Delaware River. Camden’s population of just 80,000 had a hefty 35 percent living below the poverty line. For the state as a whole, that figure is just 8.7 percent. Only 66 percent of those who attend Camden High School graduate, compared to 92 percent for students statewide. Half of the city’s population has been through the emergency room of Cooper Hospital in the last five years.

“It’s a city with an incredible amount of poverty, and a very high quotient of criminals--and victims--per capita,” said Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office.

When Philadelphia offered criminals leniency last September under the US Marshal’s Fugitive Safe Surrender Program, which allows non-violent offenders to turn themselves in and receive favorable consideration in court, some 1,800 of the city’s 1.5 million residents came forward. When Camden made the same offer two months later, a staggering 4,000 of the city’s 80,000 residents showed up. Hundreds of people swarmed the Camden church where authorities had installed a makeshift courtroom to process the cases.

The spike in Camden’s murder rate began at the end of 2007 and continued into the first several months of 2008, at a time when murder rates around the country have been falling. The homicide rate in Newark, for instance, fell from 99 in 2007 to just 67 last year.

Law enforcement officials attribute Camden’s spike to a drug trade and gang network that has become so woven into the fabric of the city--and conspicuous--it’s been difficult to eliminate. The city’s open-air drug markets have been in business for so long, people from throughout the region know which drugs they can get at what corners.

“I drove from corner to corner, and hot spot to hot spot, and it was quite disconcerting,” said Special Assistant Attorney General Jose Cordero. “It seemed like every other hot spot was dotted with four or five people selling drugs. And then when they saw a police officer, they would stop what they were doing for three seconds and then go back to it.”

Camden already had a deeply rooted gang network, but it was local and relatively small, like the Fifth Street posse or the Centerville posse. But over the last five or six years, there’s been a significant increase in members from the more established gangs, like the Bloods, the Nietas and Latin Kings, entering the city. The result has been turf wars, as gang members try to unseat each other in order to take over their drug trade.

“There were turf wars among the posses. But also, new gang members were being paroled here, and they were trying to get rid of the local gangs,” said Meyer of Rutgers. “They viewed the posses as something easy to dispense with, because they’re so small.”

Around the time the murder rate spiked, several men who were being released from jail told parole officials they were relocating to Camden to be with their girlfriend, only it turns out they all used the same woman’s name.

“I don’t know how many were with this one gal, but people in the parole offices noticed it,” Meyer said. Gangs were viewing Camden as unchartered territory, Meyer said. And once they started getting a toehold, they started literally picking people off. Witness the change in the type of murders being committed, she said. Killings in Camden were typically the result of a dispute, over drugs or a girl or disrespect, and they were usually random, spontaneous, and resulted in one or two gunshot wounds that sometimes didn’t result in death. But in late 2007 and early 2008, the killings often involved the premeditation of one or two men ambushing and opening fire on someone else.

“The homicides used to be civil incivilities: two guys get into it over a car or a woman and a gun gets introduced, and it becomes a fatality. Last year, that changed,” Meyer said.

One man was shot as he climbed into his car. Another had just pulled up to his house in a BMW. One was gunned down after ignoring a warning from a drug crew that he’d strayed too close to their business. Another was shot while riding his bike. Yet another was approached by a man as he was talking to someone. There was no interaction with the assailant, Meyer said. The killers would just drive up and pump their victims full of bullets.

And the magnitude of the attacks left more people dead. Police say the only difference between shootings and homicides is your rate of success. In the past, if two people got into a dispute that ended up involving guns, chances are the victim didn’t suffer a wound to a vital organ. But getting shot eight times greatly increases the chances of dying at the scene, Meyer said.

“In the fall of 2007, altercations went from people fighting in the street over stupid stuff to these hits, and it was boom, boom, boom, boom, one after the other, and I thought, ‘What are you doing to my city?’ ” Meyer said.

Cordero of the Attorney General’s office, who is the state’s director of gangs, guns and violent crime, described late 2007 and the first five or six months of 2008 as drug wars, but law enforcement officials question the extent to which outsiders were coming into the city to unseat local gangs. But they say there was clearly some sort of power struggle going on.

“It’s a matter of who, ultimately, is willing to be more violent, who is making more money and can bring in and hire additional people to help,” Cordero said. “And there are long-time rivalries and new rivalries that erupt when a new group takes over a corner.”

Police can even inadvertently create turf battles, by shutting down one gang’s operation only to see those same people pop up in another neighborhood or corner.

“We have to be careful of that,” said Camden County Prosecutor William Faulk. “You can move the drug trade out of one area and your actions can lead to a turf war.”

The police responded to the violence last September by beefing up their intelligence, combining its homicide and narcotics units into a single violent crime task force and utilizing high-tech problem-solving initiatives, like the Compstat crime-analysis program, to zero in on the problem spots and hold officers accountable for reducing crime there. They also removed all officers from desk jobs and put them out on the street, during the hours that prime time for crime--6 p.m. to 4 a.m.--rather than the 9-to-5 schedules to which most officers had become accustomed. An investigative unit of 45 detectives, many of whom were doing mostly clerical duties, for instance, was put back out on the street.

“How do you go before a community group and tell them you’re doing the best you can when there are law enforcement officers who have better hours than bankers?” Chief Thomson said.

By putting more officers on the street, the department now has a roster of the city’s most violent offenders and gang members, and is trying to remove them from the street. The department also changed its targets, from drug kingpins to those who commit violence. In December, it raided some of the city’s most drug-infested neighborhoods and made 350 arrests and confiscated 40 guns.

“We’re no longer chasing the kilo ferry,” Thomson said. “We cataloged gang members and violent criminals, and those were the people we put in our crosshairs and have gone after with all our resources.” By the second half of last year, the measures appeared to be working. Where homicides were up 93 percent in the first six months of last year, they were down 14 percent in the last six months. There were also 30 percent fewer shootings.

The department’s increased presence was a welcome development. In the past, residents complained that they would call police and no one would show up. Now, officers know all of the gang members in their assigned neighborhoods and have made it their business to know who sells what and where, so that instead of responding to crimes after they’ve happened, they’re can try to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

“The criminals should be looking over their shoulder, looking for the police rather than which gang they’re going to fight and take over,” Cordero said.

Cordero said the city’s problems in 2007 and 2008 were the result of police allowing gang expansion to go unchecked.

“What’s happening in Camden in terms of violent crime and homicides and the connections with drug gangs is clearly excessive and concerning to anybody. But the reality is, it is an example of what happens when the growth of drug gangs and street gangs isn’t effectively checked.”

Cordero says there are now more agencies, including the FBI to Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the county prosecutor’s office, the Attorney General’s office, probation, parole and the US Marshal’s Office, working on Camden’s crime problem than in any other city in the state. Representatives from each agency have been meeting biweekly to share intelligence. “We’re working to turn this problem around. Now that we’ve got some traction and momentum, we don’t want to lose it,” Cordero said.

Not surprisingly, some on the force have been grousing, and there’s been a noticeable rise in early retirements.

“To the hardworking cop, this has been a godsend. To the cop that is in this profession for all the wrong reasons, it’s a nightmare,” Chief Thomson said.

Angel Fuentes, Camden’s Council President, said he’s received calls from officers unhappy about the changes.

“We knew officers would come to us,” Fuentes said. “I made it clear that this is not where we need to bend over backwards. We have an obligation to our constituents when it comes to public safety.”

The department’s efforts are also bumping into the bad economy. The department has always suffered from a lack of funding and technology to fight crime. But now, as officers retire, the city doesn’t have the budget to replace them. The department has shrunk from 441 officers to 383 over the last three years, 54 of whom are currently out on suspension, injury or disability. Another 15 to 20 are expected to retire by the end of the year.

“We’re operating with about 331 warm bodies. It’s been a tremendous hit,” Thomson said.

The department has also been told it must cut its overtime budget by $5 million, which not only affects its new enforcement efforts, but also affects parades like the Puerto Rican Parade. Known as the Parade San Juan Bautista, the event has been staged for 52 years, drawing some 10,000 people. Last year, it required $70,000 in police overtime.

But for those trying to pull the city up by its bootstraps, there are rays of hope. With so much of its population moving through the emergency rooms, Cooper Hospital sees an opportunity to reach residents and give them much-needed services with the hope of breaking the cycles of violence and abuse. The ER now has a full-time social worker available, as well as offering smoking cessation and a program through Ceasefire. It is also researching substance abuse patterns, such as where people buy or use heroin, and where they live and grew up, with the hope of coming up with public health solutions to address that abuse.

“When someone’s a youth and they’ve been assaulted, they’re in a cycle of violence. We have an opportunity to intervene,” said Anthony Mazzarelli, medical director of the hospital’s Department of Emergency Medicine. “It’s not usually an emergency room that gets involved in these things, but in Camden, we have the fact that 50 percent of the population came through here in the last five years. We inadvertently have a net where we get to contact this community.”

City and state officials have also been putting money into the hospital and Rutgers-Camden. Part of a so-called “Eds and Meds” program, short for “Education and Medicine,” city officials hope to raise Camden up from the ashes by growing its educational and medical facilities, as Johns Hopkins did for Baltimore and Temple University did for Philadelphia. Just as large retailers serve as anchor stores in a downtown or a new shopping mall, the hope is that Rutgers and Cooper will serve as anchors for development.

One of the first projects has already been completed: a new $220 million patient pavilion at Cooper Hospital. With money from the Camden Recovery Act in 2002, which gave city officials $175 million in state cash for infrastructure projects, city officials and some private partners built the facility, which opened in December.

“That project alone was a beacon of hope for a new economy in Camden,” said Monica Lesmerises, director for community development at Cooper Hospital. She notes it was the largest single construction project in Camden in the last 30 years, and actually changed the city’s skyline.

“It could take 30 years for Camden to be revitalized, but more’s been done here in the last few years than in the decades before that,” Lesmerises said.

For now, Camden’s downtown, which has the hospital, Rutgers, and city offices, remains an island: a 20-square block zone of pristine buildings, clean sidewalks and a distinct lack of graffiti, boarded up buildings and broken glass. But it’s slowly becoming integrated with the rest of the city. There used to be a fence along one of the hospital’s perimeters, meant to keep out the criminal element. That fence was recently taken down, Lesmerises says.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 6 Issue 1 (April, 2009).