With pressure mounting to curb Camden's surging crime, the state's top law enforcement officer was set to visit the city Thursday to meet with the mayor and county prosecutor, a spokesman for Attorney General Paula Dow said Wednesday.
On a day when a national ranking of the "most dangerous cities" kept Camden in the number-two spot, there were also calls from backers of a controversial plan to create a regional police force to expedite it.
Paul Loriquet said Dow's decision to visit Camden was prompted by law enforcement concerns from Mayor Dana L. Redd, who called Dow on Monday night to ask for more manpower on city streets.
About 8 p.m. Monday, Miguel Almonte, a bodega owner in the Cramer Hill section, was killed in his store during a robbery by two masked men carrying assault rifles. Three other people inside, including an employee, were wounded.
The killing of Almonte, a 48-year-old father of five known for his generosity to customers, has prompted outrage in the city. His death is the city's 48th homicide - 11 more than this time last year. The city had a record 58 homicides in 1995.
Authorities don't have any suspects in the killing, said Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for Prosecutor Warren W. Faulk.
Faulk has blamed the spike in crime on a budget crunch that forced deep cutbacks in the police force earlier this year, and he has called for more officers in the city.
Council President Frank Moran on Tuesday called for Redd to declare a state of emergency to press Gov. Christie to send reinforcements from the state police - which already has a presence in the city - and the National Guard.
But it appeared unlikely Redd would call for a state of emergency. Such a declaration is usually reserved for natural disasters or civil disobedience, city attorney Marc Riondino said.
Moran could not be reached on Wednesday.
Through a spokesman, Redd said Wednesday she planned to make an announcement about public safety on Thursday.Some Camden clergy and business owners said they planned to hold a vigil Thursday to press Moran, Redd, and state officials to quickly respond to the escalating violence.
"Ya basta! Is what we would say, or, 'Enough is enough,' " said Jose Bello, a Cramer Hill resident, former business owner, and member of St. Anthony's Church, where the vigil would be held.
Miguel Amador, president of the Dominican-American Chamber of Commerce, which represents 53 small-business owners, has been fielding calls from members asking for help.
"It's been out of control," Amador said, noting that the last three months were especially bad. "Every night it's a cabdriver or grocery store owner or barbershop that gets held up."
In January, facing a $26 million city budget deficit, Redd laid off 168 officers. She has rehired 99, but up to 50 officers have since left or plan to leave the force for retirements and other jobs, said John Williamson, president of the city Fraternal Order of Police.
The department's current strength is around 215 officers, excluding those who are injured or unavailable to work the streets, union officials said.
The city's financial straits are attributed to a half-century decline in homeownership and taxable businesses and one of the lowest tax-collection rates in the state, among many factors.
Despite the state's insistence that Camden needs to wean itself off state aid, the city's small tax base makes that almost impossible. More than half the properties in the city - including most of the waterfront attractions, such as the Adventure Aquarium - are tax-exempt.
City and state officials blame failed negotiations with police union officials for the layoffs. Union officials say they have offered concessions and are still negotiating.
Supporters of a regionalized county police plan said the surge in crime highlighted the need for a county force to patrol Camden streets.
In October, a law enforcement consultant, former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney, released a plan for a county police force that would ultimately have around 400 full-time officers on Camden streets as part of a large county force.
The plan, however, did not specify cost savings - a key selling point for establishing a regional force. Nor did it put forth a timeline.
"We need to get that moving as soon as possible," State Sen. Donald Norcross, a Democrat whose district includes the city, said Wednesday.
His brother, George Norcross, chairman of Cooper University Hospital, a major presence in the city, said, "You've got to double if not triple the number of police on the streets. Every day that goes by, another human life has been affected in an adverse way."
State officials are "working diligently on the issue" of regionalization, state Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said Wednesday.
Camden was listed behind Flint, Mich., as the second-most crime-plagued city in the country, according to the 2011 CQ Press City Crime Rankings.
Supporters of a regionalized Camden County force say it would be more efficient.
Suburban towns, however, have balked at joining the proposed force. The plan has sparked criticism from union representatives and Camden officers, who would face deep cuts in salaries and a new round of layoffs.
Williamson, the union president, said that although the crime conditions were worrisome, there was no evidence a county force would save money or keep residents safer. Rather, the department needs more officers and more investment in its infrastructure.
"Those who continue to push this county plan may be pushing it for their own personal reasons and not reasons that will ultimately benefit the city and the residents," he said.
Redd has not publicly endorsed the plan but has said she was considering it.