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Camden nears the end of a violent year

It didn't take long for Thomas "Guns" Ortiz to become Camden's first homicide victim of 2008. The 37-year-old police informant and convicted stickup artist was found dead, shot in the torso, on New Year's Day in the city's Bergen Square neighborhood.

It didn't take long for Thomas "Guns" Ortiz to become Camden's first homicide victim of 2008. The 37-year-old police informant and convicted stickup artist was found dead, shot in the torso, on New Year's Day in the city's Bergen Square neighborhood.

His killer left scant evidence - not uncommon in Camden's street shootings - and it is unclear whether Ortiz's role as an informant or his criminal past figured in his death. A year later, no arrests have been made.

The killing was the start to one of Camden's bloodiest years on record. As of Sunday, the city of about 75,000 had seen 53 homicides, up from 42 in all of 2007, say authorities. Two men also were shot and killed by Camden police officers in the line of duty.

The record number of killings in Camden is 58, set in 1995. This year's tally is the highest since 2004, when 50 murders led a research company to declare Camden the deadliest city in America for the first of two consecutive years.

While the number of homicides in Philadelphia has dropped - 329 as of Sunday, compared to 392 in 2007 - Camden's has risen. The city's rate of violent crime is second in the nation this year, up from fifth in 2007, according to a study by the publisher CQ Press. Of cities over 75,000, only New Orleans has fared worse.

Law-enforcement officials attribute the surge to a growing gang presence and an increase in small-time drug disputes. Most of Camden's homicides appear to be targeted killings, report police, who say that residents often are unwilling to come forward with information that could solve the cases.

Authorities have increased police presence on the street, and the state - which has overseen Camden's police department since 2003 - is involved in operations aimed at dismantling the city's drug networks.

But law-enforcement officials say they are often powerless to stop the most typical Camden crimes: one-on-one shootings that can take place in any corner of the city, at any hour of the day, in no predictable pattern.

"Some of these shootings are gang-related, but some are just beefs, and those you really can't prevent," said Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk. "Other than the elimination of guns, there isn't much that can be done."

The first months of 2008 were extraordinarily violent in Camden, with nine homicides in January and six in February. June through September brought about five killings every month.

In July, the Camden Police Department underwent a major reorganization that made Scott Thomson chief and tripled the number of officers on the streets. Officers have aggressively targeted drug buyers in an effort to scare addicts from coming into the city to score. Police also have increased arrests for minor offenses such as loitering and public drinking, in hopes that clearing the sidewalks will reduce drug trafficking and violence.

The city's homicide rate has slowed considerably from the beginning of the year. In October, there were two killings, and last month only one.

Police do not claim that the downturn is due solely to changes in the department, but Camden Police Inspector Michael Lynch says that flooding the street with officers has created a hostile environment for offenders.

"When the criminals expect to be caught, when the criminals expect to be identified and apprehended, when they expect that the police are everywhere, that person is going to be less apt to commit a crime," Lynch said.

Though robberies and thefts also have increased this year, Lynch says that some violent crimes - including non-fatal shootings, rapes and other assaults - are down.

Camden's murder victims tend to be involved with drugs or other illegal activities, police say. But tragedy has struck more than a few innocent bystanders in 2008.

It was broad daylight when 4-year-old Brandon Thompson was caught in a gun battle around the corner from his house in July. Thompson's uncle, Martin Pierce, was one of the men firing in the shoot-out that left the boy dead. Pierce, 19, and the other shooter, Donald Benjamin Lindsey, 20, have been charged in the killing.

Kevin Wiggins, a 39-year-old janitor, was shot in June after he returned home from work late at night to find several people attempting a home invasion on his block. No arrests have been made.

In September, 54-year-old Luis Cruz locked his family inside their Parkside house during an argument and opened fire. Cruz killed his wife, son, daughter and mother-in-law before turning the gun on himself.

"That's not the kind of thing any law-enforcement agency can do anything to prevent," Faulk said. "Those tragedies, unfortunately, happen everywhere."

Another atypical Camden homicide victim was Ralph Byrd, 45, who died this month from injuries he suffered in an unsolved shooting that left him paralyzed three years ago.

Authorities hope the city will fare better in 2009. The Police Department continues to deploy lots of officers, and the state has planned more undercover operations.

"We can't look at these numbers and say we've been victorious," Lynch said. "But what we can look at is our strategies and how they are having an impact. Based on that, we can see we're making progress. And that tells us we have to press harder than ever before."

To many Camden residents, word of new policing tactics is a familiar refrain. The department has had six leadership changes in six years, and with every chief has come a new slate of priorities and goals.

The solutions to the city's problems have been the same all along, say some who live there: Camden needs more jobs, community centers and social welfare programs so citizens don't turn to the city's thriving drug industry.

"You can't get rid of the violence without giving these people something," the Rev. John Parker, pastor of Camden's Antioch Baptist Church, said recently. "People need jobs, they need guidance. People need hope."