Is there any hope for Camden?

Raven Walker, 18, cries in remembrance of a close friend, a shooting victim.
Raven Walker, 18, cries in remembrance of a close friend, a shooting victim. (APRIL SAUL /STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 19, 2012

AS THE SUN SET on a Camden playground last week, a little boy stood close to his father, staring up at the white balloons, the candles and thetear-streaked faces.

Eventually, the man leaned over and explained the sadness to his son, how a violent act led them to this autumn vigil, that they'd come to this park to pay respect, not to play.

"See that lady over there that I hugged? That was her daughter that was killed," Michael Benjamin, a school-district employee, told his 6-year-old son, Isaiah. "We came here to show her we grieve for her."

These gatherings rarely happen in the upscale enclaves or winding suburban developments beyond Camden, but here, in the nation's poorest city, murders are nearing record numbers. The recurring candle-lit pleas to God, police, politicians and people who brandish guns haven't stopped the killing.

The vigil in Camden's Farnham Park last week was held for Jewel Manire, 19, and Khalil Gibson, 20, both shot dead inside a parked car on Oct. 6 after leaving a birthday party for Manire's 4-year-old son.

On Tuesday night, the small city of only about 77,000 people registered its 53rd homicide, and it's on pace to shatter the record of 58 set in 1995. Thursday afternoon, an anti-violence group will plant a 53rd cross in the lawn outside Camden City Hall in honor of the victim, Michael Haller.

"There's an extraordinary amount of violence in Camden, and I think we've grown used to it," said the Rev. Jeff Putthoff, executive director of Hopeworks, a nonprofit youth-development program in Camden. "We've normalized it, and that's called trauma. The crosses are a way for us to pierce the silence."

Camden Mayor Dana Redd, whose office sits across from the field of crosses, sent the Daily News a statement about the recent violence, saying that she'll continue to work with residents and community organizations to "let everyone know that all life matters.

"The senseless acts of violence, especially when it involves innocent children, is truly disheartening," Redd said in the statement.

Camden's murder rate was high before the record year in 1995, and poverty touched every neighborhood in the city then, too. The public-school system, like many other impoverished districts, struggled, and despite a healthy economy and major developments and attractions along the waterfront, there still weren't enough well-paying jobs in Camden to support a strong middle class.

Young men continued to turn to drugs to make a living and shot their competition to protect it. Kids looked up to them and replaced them on their corners when they left in body bags or handcuffs.

City residents, according to news accounts from the time, blamed the police as the murder rate rose. Elected officials, in turn, asked Trenton for help.

"The city does not have the means to fight by itself," former Assemblyman Joe Roberts said in 1995. "There are 100 less officers than there were 20 years ago."

Today, Camden has 273 officers, about 70 fewer than it had in 1995. Chief Scott Thomson said he works with fewer than 200 officers a day when sick time and absenteeism are accounted for. What's left, Thomson said, is a depleted force that spends its time reacting to crime instead of preventing it.

"Every gun and badge we have is out in the field," Thomson said last week, standing outside the Northgate Apartments by the Ben Franklin Bridge. "We're not folding."

The Camden Police Department is folding in a sense, though. It is being replaced with a 400-member regional police department that will be made up of new hires and re-hired members of Camden's current department. The controversial plan, supported by Gov. Christie, will save millions of dollars for a city with little tax revenue, county officials said, although union officials said that it's an attempt to break them once and for all.

"It's not about savings," said John Williamson, president of Camden's Fraternal Order of Police. "They want to toss out our contract because they want to get rid of the rights and protections that the officers have now under civil service."

There have been protests and lawsuits aimed at stopping the implementation of the new police force, and the city's also sued to prevent the issue from being put to a public vote. Even at last week's vigil in Farnham Park, which Williamson attended, the subject of the regional police department came up.

"This is the result of them trying to take our police officers from us," a woman yelled through a bullhorn.

Putthoff believes that discussion about the police numbers detracts from a deeper and more complicated issue in Camden that law enforcement can never fix: poverty. Along with routinely being named one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S., Camden recently replaced Reading as the poorest city in the country.

"You are actually seeing generations of poor people raised by generations of poor people, and the trauma is passed along," he said. "We shouldn't be surprised that it's become intractable."

Even if an army of police officers succeeded in eliminating the drug trade, Putthoff believes that the city's population would be even worse off - and at least one former drug dealer agrees.

"There's no jobs that would pay close to what these boys on the corner make, so what would everybody do? Crime would be worse with stick-ups and robberies," Willie, who didn't want his full name published, told the Daily News. "There's a market for drugs. There's people coming in here all day long to buy drugs."

Driving a wedge between generations is difficult, school-board member Sean Brown said, because teachers across the country are not trained to deal with deeply entrenched urban problems.

"The Camden public-education system is not designed to address the direct educational needs of the students they serve," Brown said.

Expansions at Campbell's Soup, Rutgers University and Cooper University Hospital, including Cooper's new medical school on Broadway, have been touted as a way to attract more private-sector investment and ultimately stabilize the city. A task force recently concluded that the $48 million of state money directed to "eds and meds" in Camden is paying off.

George E. Norcross III, chairman of the board of trustees at Cooper and one of New Jersey's most powerful political figures, said that he's also supporting the creation of several privately run schools in the city, and believes that there's a "glaring lack of police presence" in Camden.

"I would agree that part of the problem, but not all of it, is poverty," he said. "Part of the problem is also a lack of high-quality education for kids who live in that culture, and part of it is a lack of boots on the street."

Norcross is also a managing partner of the company that owns the Daily News.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, whose book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt includes a chapter on Camden, doesn't believe that "eds and meds" will trickle down to city residents.

"It didn't work for Baltimore," he said.

Hedges refers to Camden, along with other impoverished communities he profiled, as "sacrifice zones," the worst examples of what "unfettered, unregulated capitalism does."

"It's really heartbreaking," he said. "I don't think Camden is coming back."

Norcross said that he isn't trying to recreate Camden's industrial heyday, though.

"It's going to be a large education- and healthcare-based city, a service-professional center," he said. "It's never going to be what it was, when my father was a kid."

At the vigil last week, residents prayed that Camden would simply find peace and that the masked gunman who killed Jewel Manire and Khalil Gibson would be caught.

As it grew darker, Michael Benjamin stood toward the back of the crowd, his son huddled even closer now, and shook his head.

"I've known at least 45 kids who've been killed in my lifetime," he said, the boy holding his finger. "I stopped counting in 2004, though."


Contact Jason Nark at narkj@phillynews.com or 215-854-5916. Follow him on Twitter @JasonNark.

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