An escalating drug-trade turf war in Camden could make 2008 one of the deadliest years in the city's recorded history.
As of Friday afternoon, Camden had 25 homicides this year - an average of five a month, acting Camden County Prosecutor Joshua Ottenberg said. Eleven occurred during the same period in 2007.
At the current rate, Camden could exceed its highest number of annual homicides on record, 58 in 1995.
The city's murder rate has seesawed in the last decade. After declining to 32 homicides in 2006, the pace quickened last summer. By the end of 2007, 42 people had been killed. This year's spike "puts us back where we used to be," Ottenberg said.
Camden police have responded with several measures, including putting more than a dozen additional officers on street duty, that Ottenberg said should help quell the surge in violence.
"Camden is a tough place to be for its residents," Camden Police Chief Ed Hargis said. "There are honest people living here raising their families, and they're being held prisoner right now."
Most murders in Camden, the poorest city in New Jersey, have been targeted killings in drug or money disputes, Ottenberg said.
All but two of the victims this year were gunned down. Authorities have yet to identify suspects in most of the killings.
Ottenberg said he believed that many of the deaths were the result of a power struggle within the city's drug trade.
Small, established drug operations are giving way to larger, more organized networks, he said. As the gang presence has increased, so have turf wars over neighborhoods or corners.
"What I think is happening is that some of these [longtime drug networks] are not being taken over as quickly as it might have been assumed," Ottenberg said. "They're pushing back, and we're seeing the friction."
Why gang activity is rising in Camden is unclear, said Jeremiah A. Daley, executive director of the Philadelphia-Camden High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a branch of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy.
"Camden's been a troubled city for some time, and those are the kinds of situations where street gangs tend to evolve," Daley said. "You have a high concentration of poverty, and young people who are disaffected with the school system or have dropped out already. These people are ripe for the picking to become involved with gangs."
The nine-square-mile city, which has a population below 80,000, has long been known for its pervasive violent crime. A research company named it the country's most dangerous metropolis in 2004 and 2005, but by then many crimes, including homicides, had begun to decrease.
Though the rates of some crimes, including assaults and nonfatal shootings, have continued to drop, the murder rate started to inch up again in July.
Camden's per-capita murder rate was nearly twice Philadelphia's last year, Ottenberg said. A Camden resident was more likely to be murdered than someone living in Baltimore; Detroit; Newark, N.J.; or Oakland, Calif.
The challenge for police, Ottenberg said, is stopping crimes that are largely premeditated.
"It's very difficult to interdict intentional killings," he said. "Most of these are not homicides that evolve out of a bar dispute or a domestic. These guys are very much going after each other and taking care of business."
Authorities have deployed numerous strategies to reduce crime over the years: increasing street patrols, targeting drug buyers, confiscating weapons. Ottenberg and police said they believed the initiatives had led to the decrease in nonfatal shootings and assaults.
"Residents are actually less likely to be shot than in years past," Ottenberg said. "But because the homicides are high-profile, it creates this sense that people are in danger."
This summer, Camden police hope to install surveillance cameras along six commercial corridors: Mount Ephraim, Haddon and Westfield Avenues; Federal Street; Broadway; and Yorkship Square. In addition, the department reorganized its detective unit to put 18 more officers on patrols.
"The level of violence we have right now, we can't afford to have officers sitting at desks," Hargis said.
The redeployment has come while state police coverage of the city is in question. In his proposed state budget, designed to eliminate a shortfall, Gov. Corzine has said he would charge the city $800,000 a year for the 16 to 20 troopers who lend extra manpower to the Camden Police Department, which has about 400 members. Local officials have said no money is available to pay the tab.
In many cities, including Camden, crime traditionally goes up in the summer. The deadline to pass the state budget is June 30. If Corzine's charge for state troopers goes through, authorities fear it could leave Camden vulnerable at the worst time.
"I would hope that the state police services to the City of Camden continue as they have in the past," Hargis said. "They've been a great partner with us."
Some community members say authorities must step back and also address the issues that drive residents into the drug trade.
The city is crumbling under the weight of poverty and a lack of opportunity, said Angel Cordero, an East Camden activist who runs a program aimed at helping high school dropouts pursue college educations.
"The drug trade in Camden has increased so dramatically because there is no money here," Cordero said. "There's no jobs, and these people have nothing to do, nowhere to go. I call it an invisible wall around Camden, and we can't get out of here."