ON A RECENT misty morning in Camden, Carmen Ovalles placed a memorial candle bearing a representation of Jesus' face by the door of a bodega, wiped away a tear, and uttered a sad truth about the city.
"Camden is the same, the same thing year after year," Ovalles, 38, said outside the Bernard Grocery in Cramer Hill, where the owner, Miguel Almonte, was shot dead and three others were wounded during a botched robbery Monday night. "It's getting worse, though."
Ovalles isn't a cop, an academic, or a researcher, but she's dead-on.
Camden, according to the 2011 CQ Press City Crime Rankings released yesterday, is the nation's second-most-dangerous city - the same as last year - but brazen criminals there are making a chaotic and blood-soaked run at the top ranking for next year.
"God knows where we'll be ranked next year," said Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk. "I thought we made good progress in 2010, but that's all been wiped away. We're going in the wrong direction."
Camden has 48 has had homicides so far this year, 11 more than this time last year. Almost every category of crime is up, except rape, including a 45 percent increase in aggravated assaults with a firearm.
"We're used to this stuff here, and even we're saying it's crazy," said a high-ranking Camden cop, who asked to remain anonymous.
Flint, Mich., was named the nation's most dangerous city. Camden, Detroit, St. Louis and Oakland rounded out the top five. Philadelphia slipped three spots to 27th.
Critics of the rankings, based on the previous year's homicides, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries and motor-vehicle thefts in cities with more than 75,000 residents, have long argued that the rankings paint skewed pictures with old data. When the rankings came out last year, Camden Mayor Dana Redd pointed out that the city was in the midst of historic crime reductions. Just a few months later, however, approximately 168 of Camden's 370 officers were laid off. Crime has steadily risen since.
During the layoffs, both Redd and police officials said safety would not suffer, but Faulk said the link is now undeniable.
"I was willing to go along with not pushing the panic button at first. We've reached the point where I can no longer remain silent," he said Tuesday. "Unfortunately, I have no solutions."
Robert Corrales, a spokesman for Redd and the police department, said the mayor was "obviously concerned" about the violence. He said the layoffs were a result of the economy and nonconcessions by police unions, but noted that 60 percent of the laid-off officers have been brought back.
Redd has reportedly asked the Attorney General's Office for help. City Council members are asking to declare a state of emergency and calling for the National Guard, and others have suggested bringing in more State Police troopers.
"That's not going to happen," Faulk said of troopers.
Although he doesn't know where the money would come from, Faulk said the city needs 130 to 150 more officers. For Carlos Vega, a resident who lives down the street from the grocery store where the shootout took place, that was obvious.
"We don't have any real policing in Camden," Vega, 50, said. "They're just out here to pick up the bodies."