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In Camden, a puzzling increase in homicides

Killings are up in 2007 even as other crimes have dropped.

Saad Brittingham, 17, was fatally shot in Camden on July 5, a day after 12-year-old James Martin "Pee Wee" Coleman was slain in the city.
Saad Brittingham, 17, was fatally shot in Camden on July 5, a day after 12-year-old James Martin "Pee Wee" Coleman was slain in the city.Read more

Last summer, Loresha Gaines buried her son, a 12-year-old boy gunned down with an assault rifle while sitting in a parked car in Camden.

"We miss you so much, Martin. You don't know what it's like talking to a picture," she said shortly after the funeral. "But I want you to rest. We're all going to be together in the end."

James Martin "Pee Wee" Coleman is the youngest homicide victim in Camden so far this year. Though his death was widely publicized, it was hardly unique.

As of Thursday, Camden - long notorious for its violent crime - had suffered 42 homicides this year, a one-third increase over 2006. Police fatally shot three more people.

The city's death toll was dwarfed by the 391 homicides recorded in Philadelphia during the same period. But with only 79,300 residents, Camden has a murder rate nearly twice Philadelphia's.

A resident of Camden was more likely to be murdered this year than someone living in Detroit, Baltimore, Newark, N.J., Oakland, Calif., Richmond, Va., or Flint, Mich., all notorious crime capitals.

Homicides have risen from 32 in 2006 even as Camden's property crimes and nonfatal shootings have dropped slightly, leaving police and criminologists to question the unpredictable nature of murderous impulses - and their ability to do anything about them.

"You have to wonder why homicides are up" when other assaults with a gun are down, said Arturo Venegas, the state-appointed leader of Camden's Police Department. "Either the shooters are being more selective or the targets aren't ducking as fast."

Venegas said the city, the poorest in the state, could take years to emerge from its struggle with poverty and the crime and drugs that come with it. Camden's lack of money also hinders effective law enforcement.

"We need 46 additional cars," Venegas said, "and we're lacking the basic tools of modern policing: computers in cars and in the offices."

Veteran police also talk about the cyclical nature of homicides. Camden's rate has seesawed over the years. It peaked in 1995, at 58, then dipped to 24 four years later.

Homicides hit the city - which a research company named the "most dangerous" in the country in 2004 and 2005 - especially hard last summer. The series of crimes involving young victims and shooters culminated in Pee Wee's death on the Fourth of July. His murder remains unsolved.

The nihilism of Pee Wee's generation troubles many in the city, including Camden's 82-year-old mayor, Gwendolyn Faison.

"It hurt me the other day when some young person said, 'I don't have anything to live for,' " Faison said.

"I had asked, 'Don't you want to live to retire?' " she said. "They only think about living until they're 25."

In interviews this year, Camden residents talked about teenagers, the children of addicted or jailed parents, raising themselves on the streets and in the drug trade.

"These are the last days. I've never seen it like this before," said Richard Rozier, 43, while walking through a Camden housing project in July with his 3-year-old son. "They're out here wilding. Who wouldn't be concerned?"

The Police Department, which has been under the county prosecutor's authority since a 2003 order from the state attorney general, has new tactics to introduce in 2008.

By summer, the city hopes to have "Eye in the Sky" surveillance cameras trained on six commercial corridors. New police scheduling has reduced the response time to crimes, and recently formed district councils of residents, law officers and city officials have created a spirit of cooperation between neighborhoods and police, activists said.

But, Faison said, fundamental changes are called for.

"We need to find new methods of getting to our young people," she said. "It's not the talk you usually give to a newspaper, but I don't see a solution in sight until we change people's hearts."

In years past, police in Camden have tried different tactics, such as a "shoot team" that investigates nonfatal shootings, and 28-day crime-suppression blitzes in certain neighborhoods. Now the city is gearing up for an antigun initiative.

"I see good things happening at the Camden Police Department as more and more quality initiatives are imported from similar jurisdictions," said Jon'a Meyer, professor of criminology at Rutgers University-Camden.

"Why the recent jump" in homicides? "Personally, I believe it's due to the weather, plus the stress of the economy," Meyer said.

"Homicides among strangers and acquaintances are much more likely to happen when weather is nice. Remember that lovely, temperate Thanksgiving weekend with so many killings?" Four slayings occurred over those four days.

"On any other recent Thanksgiving," Meyer said, "those folks would have been indoors rather than out looking for and finding trouble."

Some murder rates have dropped dramatically. Manhattan, which had nearly 650 murders in 1975, is on a pace to have fewer than 70 this year.

An antigun strategy that Boston employed during the 1990s lowered homicides to historic levels. Its success was deemed the "Boston miracle."

Camden police are looking for their own miracle. Homicides happen randomly, Venegas said.

There's only one way to prevent every killing, he said: "We'd have to put a cop on every citizen in this community, in and out of their homes."