A recent spate of fatal shootings and stabbings in Camden, where the annual number of homicides has dropped dramatically and — except in 2016 — steadily since 2012, worries law enforcement officials and city residents alike.
And since recent months also have seen a noteworthy increase in Philadelphia’s homicide numbers, it’s worth asking if there are common factors at play, and more importantly, whether there could be common solutions.
One common factor is guns, which are all-too-available to criminals in both cities. Firearms involved in Camden homicides often are purchased or stolen from Pennsylvania or other jurisdictions where regulations are less stringent than in New Jersey.
To be sure, Philadelphia’s 136 homicides so far this year, compared to 125 at the same point in 2018 — an increase of 9 percent — far outnumber the 17 killings that have occurred thus far in Camden. Philadelphia’s population of 1.5 million dwarfs that of Camden, with 75,000 people.
But at this point last year, Camden had only eight homicides, meaning 2019 has so far seen a 100 percent increase. Clearly, this is cause for concern.
Also worrisome in Camden: The apparent involvement of local gangs, a factor possibly reflected in the multiple targets of some recent shootings. Two people were shot to death in each of two separate incidents in February and April, and four people were shot, one fatally, during a single incident in March.
It’s important to point out that between 2012 and 2018, the number of violent crimes other than homicide dropped from 1,925 to 1,178 in Camden. Violent crime has also been dropping in Philadelphia.
“People haven’t been feeling the fear we used to fear, and we don’t want to go back to where we were,” says Camden social worker Sister Helen Cole, a Catholic nun who has run an annual vigil for homicide victims since 1995. That year, the body count was 58, a number not exceeded until 2012, when 67 people were killed.
Camden and Philadelphia have followed the general urban homicide trends of the last few years, with fairly consistent declines. The Camden County Police Department, under the leadership of Chief Scott Thomson, deserves credit for its use of technology and data analysis, as well as for having deployed a younger and more diverse officer corps, and a sustained community focused approach.
The number of illegal drug markets on neighborhood corners has noticeably declined in Camden.
But like Philadelphia, the city remains a regional epicenter of the trade in illegal substances, including opioids, with buyers and sellers completing transactions on smartphone apps, according to law enforcement officials.