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Camden officials seek N.J.’s help with surge in crime

Hours after an apparently botched robbery left a bodega owner dead, the 48th homicide victim this year, Camden officials cried out for state help for their embattled police force in its struggle against a crime wave.

Hours after an apparently botched robbery left a bodega owner dead, the 48th homicide victim this year, Camden officials cried out for state help for their embattled police force in its struggle against a crime wave.

About 8 Monday night, two masked men armed with assault rifles burst into Bernard Grocery in the city's Cramer Hill section. The men opened fire, fatally striking Miguel Almonte, 48, a father of five, who was behind the counter. Three others standing in the aisles, including an employee, were wounded. The gunmen got away with cash.

"We're currently a city under siege. We are under siege by criminals. We are under siege by the drug activity. . . . We are under siege by murderers," Council President Frank Moran said Tuesday, standing in front of the grocery store.

Later Tuesday, Moran introduced a resolution at a council caucus urging Mayor Dana L. Redd to declare a state of emergency and to seek National Guard and State Police reinforcements.

The county prosecutor, who has blamed the crime upsurge on a budget crunch that forced police cutbacks in January, appealed for more police on city streets, though he declined to state his position on the call for an emergency declaration.

The last time Camden authorities invoked emergency powers was in 1991, amid a Mischief Night arson outburst.

Redd said that Monday night, she called state Attorney General Paula Dow, asking for help.

Hours before the grocery-store assault, the Camden Police Department reassigned officers from an undercover narcotics unit to uniformed community patrols to boost police visibility on city streets.

The move, though likely temporary, drew criticism from at least one member of the tactical narcotics unit, who said dismantling the group would diminish the war on the drug trade, which is at the root of many other crimes in the city. The unit is part of a federally funded countywide task force.

There have been 11 more homicides so far this year compared with the same period last year, with the total creeping ever closer to the record 58 homicides in 1995. Other crimes also have spiked in recent months, including aggravated assault.

Facing a $26 million city budget deficit, the mayor in January laid off 168 officers - nearly half of the department. Redd has since rehired 99 of the laid-off officers, using a variety of grants.

"We're looking for manpower," Redd said she told the attorney general, though she declined to say whether she would heed Moran's call to declare a state of emergency.

There is already a state police presence in Camden, assisting mostly with specialized units, such as a shooting-response team. State troopers also are part of the countywide High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force that also included, until their reassignment this week, members of the Camden narcotics unit.

Moran said that the mayor has the power to declare a state of emergency and to seek state help, but that the governor would have to agree to the request.

Gov. Christie's support seemed unlikely Tuesday.

"To her credit, Mayor Redd has managed law enforcement staffing well and, in fact, rehired many laid-off police officers," Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said in an e-mailed statement. "Unfortunately, it is hard not to note that the police union refused, during extensive negotiations, to accept any meaningful concessions, which could have mitigated layoffs in the first place."

The city's police force now numbers about 215, excluding injured officers and those who are unable to work the streets, according to police union officials - who took issue with Drewniak's assertion. "Any representation that the FOP is not willing to agree to any concessions is absolutely false," said John Williamson, president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Prosecutor Warren W. Faulk said in an interview this week that the department needed an additional 130 to 150 officers. "The bad guys are winning - at least temporarily," he said.

"I believe they [criminals] are emboldened by the fact that there are less patrols, less visible patrols, less ability for the Camden police to mass forces when necessary," he added.

County officials said Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson has been doing the best he could to redeploy his troops across the city.

"His staffing problem is such that, whatever changes you make, it's going to leave you at a deficit somewhere," said Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office. "He doesn't have much wiggle room."

The Camden tactical narcotics team, whose undercover members have been reassigned, undertakes street-level operations for the countywide drug task force.

Most have been transferred to a community police initiative, along with officers from other units.

Camden Deputy Chief Michael Lynch said Tuesday that, despite the redeployment, the department would not lose its focus on street-level narcotics.

Lynch said the community officers would tackle quality-of-life issues in the city, including drug dealing.

"The objective is to increase our uniformed presence in the neighborhoods," he said.

Faulk expressed alarm that, increasingly, the crime victims are innocents, such as the grocer Almonte.

"Also of alarm is that many of the crimes are occurring earlier in the day, between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., rather than in the early hours of the morning, as was the case in the past," he said.

"Night after night, it's the same story: One or two or three gunmen, usually masked, invading a home, sticking up a citizen on the street, or robbing and shooting a taxi driver or pizza deliveryman or gas station attendant."

He said that Monday's robbery could have turned into the city's 49th and 50th homicides, "but for the grace of God and the good work of doctors and nurses at Cooper Hospital."

Almonte, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, had owned the bodega for about five years, family members said. He gave customers food on credit when they didn't have money, said his son Luis.

"He was a hard worker," Luis said, "a great man."

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