CAMDEN Wilson Rodriguez thought he had something worthwhile to say, but he wondered why a young audience would listen to a 21-year-old parolee convicted as a teenager in the bludgeoning death of a sleeping homeless man.
He told more than a dozen youngsters in an event hosted by the Camden Board of Education he and his friends "did something horrible and someone ended up dying."
Two or three hands shot up, and questions followed: Why did you do it? How do you feel now?
The children wanted to know more.
"The lesson was: Don't follow nobody. That was my lesson," Rodriguez said, reflecting on his first appearance in July as a member of Cease Murder Diplomats, a Camden nonprofit that seeks to reduce the homicide rate by mentoring young adults and the formerly incarcerated.
When Rodriguez came home to East Camden in January after serving more than five years in a juvenile detention center and halfway house, he found his city as violent as when he left in 2008, when 54 people were killed.
As of last week, overall crime had dropped from 6,001 to 5,178 victims, but violent crime dipped only slightly. The city has recorded 55 homicides in 2013, compared with the record 67 in 2012.
As Camden has struggled with violence, a multipronged approach by law enforcement, City Hall, and scrappy organizations such as Cease Murder Diplomats have been employed to stem crime.
In April, a new, larger county police force hit Camden streets, tackling violent crime but also minor offenses, such as playing music loudly, which some have stopped perceiving as illegal.
Some residents have embraced the new force; others spurned the efforts, which initially focused on two neighborhoods with entrenched community support. In December, the force extended community policing to all 21 city neighborhoods, a county spokesman said.
The city, supplied with $1.4 million from the federal government, is considering a national antiviolence prevention program, Cure Violence, to reduce youth and gang violence. The approach entails treating violence like a disease and hiring ex-offenders like Rodriguez to act as "interrupters" to mediate gang disputes before they escalate.
It's the sort of work the Cease Murder Diplomats have been doing for more than a year.
The nonprofit has helped reenroll more than 55 high school dropouts, placed residents released from prison into jobs, and intervened in gang disputes, said Micah Khan, a managing member.
Khan hopes the group can be involved in the city's antiviolence efforts. "They're already doing the work. Why reinvent the wheel?" he said.
In Parkside, one of two communities where the county force focused first, some business owners said they were pleased officers had cleared loiterers from the sidewalks.
"Business is stable now," said Mohammed Uddin, who owns Halal Meats & Grill on Haddon Avenue. That day, two officers in a squad car were parked across the street.
"They turned this area around. I think it's just their overwhelming presence," said Jonathan Buckson, 60, a former UPS manager who lives in the neighborhood with his wife and 28-year-old daughter. "I'm their biggest fan. I tell them all the time."
The presence of multiple officers, walking in pairs on opposite sides of the street, has concerned other residents, such as Kevin Barfield, a parent advocate and father of two teenage boys.
"This is the perception of the community: It's like we're under siege," said Barfield, who added that he does want his community to be safer. "You can go in any other area, and effective policing is taking place without a sense of a community being occupied."
This year's crime numbers show decreases in offenses such as burglary from last year.
Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson referred to the reductions as "great indicators of significant progress," especially the decrease in homicides and the number of overall crime victims. A greater indicator, he said, is feedback from residents.
"We can be statistically driving crime down, but if people don't feel safe, those numbers are hollow," Thomson said.
Consultant Joe Cordero, a New York Police Department veteran who helped build the force, said he, too, was encouraged by the results.
"We understand [the numbers are] being compared to a record year, but there is nothing to say you can't have a second and third record year," he said.
Cordero said although there had been a shift in momentum, "it's a fair assessment that Camden remains a fairly violent city, that six months is simply not enough time to turn that around."
He added: "But I do think for the skeptics and for the people who are hoping for the best, there is evidence that what Camden is doing, the way they are going to do it, has brought about unimaginable levels of improvement."
The 322-member county force, which replaced the city force April 30, is expected to grow to around 400 by summer and put more officers in more neighborhoods, such as East Camden, where Rodriguez grew up.
In 2007, Rodriguez, then a 15-year-old seventh grader at East Camden Middle School, and three friends punched and kicked John Anthony Smith, 54, as he slept on a park bench on the 3900 block of Federal Street. Smith died 18 days later.
Rodriguez pleaded guilty as a juvenile to murder and was sentenced to 14 years. His three codefendants, boys 15 to 17, were charged as adults and pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter.
The four were drunk and high on PCP, Rodriguez said.
"By me being locked up, I think it was a blessing," he said. "If I had stayed here, I would have been dead."
In the juvenile detention center in Jamesburg, Rodriguez worked two jobs and earned his high school diploma. He didn't want a life behind bars.
"After a while, you see the same people coming back to jail. You either like this place, you don't have a place to stay, or you're an idiot," he said.
Rodriguez's mother visited him every other week. His father is serving a 45-year sentence for murder.
In October 2012, Rodriguez's parole officer connected him with Khan, who was arrested for selling drugs while attending Temple University. Khan is now president and CEO of the Nehemiah Group in Camden, which offers social services, including to former inmates.
"I always tell [ex-offenders], if you're not serious about change, don't waste my time," Khan said.
"I'm committed to change," Rodriguez told Khan.
In January, Khan took Rodriguez to a Trenton news conference about a bill to prohibit employers from asking about applicants' criminal histories until a conditional offer was on the table.
It was Rodriguez's first news conference - and his first time wearing a shirt and tie.
"I looked like a young man," he said, laughing.
Since his release, Rodriguez has worked two jobs - at a Taco Bell and a Wawa - found through a cousin and an aunt. He'll start a discount store job in January that he found on his own.
"What we're trying to do is show the younger generation that no matter where you are, no matter what you go through, you could be somebody," he said.