Camden loses 'most dangerous' title

Posted: November 22, 2010

Camden shed its unwanted title as the nation's most dangerous city yesterday, but was still a close runner-up to new crime king St. Louis despite what local officials called "historic" crime reductions.

Plagued by poverty, political corruption and drugs for decades, the former industrial powerhouse on the Delaware takes a few more lumps every November when the CQ Press city crime rankings come out.

The report, based on the previous year's crime data, is derided nationwide by law-enforcement organizations and academics for focusing on small slices of bigger problems.

"Obviously, it's a city with a lot of issues," said Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.

"We have an entrenched drug culture, poverty, and low employment opportunities. These factors combine to make a consistent problem with crime. We feel that 2009 did show a decrease in homicides - however, work is not done in the city."

The survey of cities with more than 75,000 residents hands out scores based on six crime categories - murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor-vehicle theft.

This time, Camden finished just seven points behind the nation's newly crowned capital of crime, St. Louis, but 18 points ahead of Detroit.

Philadelphia improved from 22nd to 30th while Newark, N.J., and Trenton finished 23rd and 26th respectively.

Lt. Ray Evers, a Philadelphia police spokesman, said the department was learning to do more with less.

"The commissioner and the department are dedicated to making Philadelphia one of the safest, large cities in America. There's definitely still work to be done," he said.

Camden Mayor Dana Redd wasn't ecstatic about her city's small victory in dropping to No. 2 and blasted CQ for issuing a "flawed" report, published "for the sake of making a buck."

"In fact, our latest data shows that overall crime is at a 40-year low in Camden," Redd said yesterday in a statement. "As we continue to move Camden forward, I encourage everyone to denounce the CQ report and come see the revitalization effort taking place in Camden."

The most drastic reduction in Camden, however, could be the number of police officers laid off because of dire budget woes and looming cuts in state aid. Initial reports said the department could lose from 150 to 225 of its 375 members.

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson said the department will "continue to provide effective police services" despite reductions, and continue its mission of "reducing the number of crime victims and making our citizens feel safe."

Police union officials said reducing crime with nearly half the department gone, or even keeping it in check, defies logic.

"It's ludicrous," said John Williamson, president of the Camden Fraternal Order of Police lodge. "They keep saying crime is at a 40-year low. You take 150 cops away from the police department and I guarantee you won't be able to boast the same figures."

Williamson said his officers have given concessions over health care and starting salaries in the past, but the city has not guaranteed there would be no layoffs if they gave up more.

"The criminals are champing at the bit over layoffs. Gangs don't have layoffs or take furlough days," he said.

Last year was the third time Camden had been named the nation's most dangerous city this decade. Throughout 2009, however, city and state officials pounded the drum over Camden's crime reductions.

Thomson said the number of major crimes had dropped below 6,000 for the first time in decades.

Its homicides, which can include police-related shootings or shootings in self-defense, had been reduced by 40 percent from 2008, when a near-record 54 people were killed.

There has been an additional 9 percent drop in all major crimes over the past year, police said, and overall violent crime dropped 3 percent.

Still, the number of rapes and aggravated assaults with firearms have increased, along with the homicides.

One law-enforcement source familiar with the department said this past weekend was "total mayhem" with several armed robberies and assaults, a carjacking and at least one shooting.

Camden is ahead of last year's homicide pace with 33 slayings so far this year, the last on Friday morning when Julio Arroyo Jr., 24, was ambushed and shot in the city's Fairview section.

At this time last year, there were 30 homicides, and the city finished with 34, Camden police said.

The majority of Camden's homicide victims this year, like most others, are men in their 20s and 30s, killed with handguns over drug or gang-related issues.

The five women killed in the city this year were either stabbed or strangled, and Muriah Huff, 18, a high-school student, was stabbed, strangled and beaten.

Authorities said Huff accompanied her boyfriend, Michael Hawkins, to a small rowhouse on Berkley Street in February, and both were later found buried in the back yard there.

Ten Bloods gang members were charged in the slayings, ranging from their 24-year-old reputed leader, who laughed when arraigned on murder charges, to a 14-year-old girl who cried for her mother when sentenced to prison.

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