Camden's 2017 murder rate was the lowest in decades. Will the trend continue?
In a city that regularly has the highest violent crime rate in the state, any decline in homicides is good news. But local police say that the murder rate for 2017 has hit a 30-year low.
The total homicides in the city in 2017 -- including both murders and manslaughter cases -- was 23, the lowest number going back as far as 1988, according to county spokesman Dan Keashen.
It looks especially good compared to last year, when homicides spiked to 44. That’s a year-to-year decline of 48 percent.
“I would qualify the statistics as progress and not success,” Police Chief J. Scott Thomson said in an interview Thursday. “We can celebrate the fact that less mothers are burying their sons, but we recognize that there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done.”
Thomson said he is more proud of the changes he sees in neighborhoods, where residents feel safe letting their kids play outside, when before they did not.
Also in 2017, the city’s violent and non-violent crime rates continued to decline. The crime numbers support a narrative city and county officials have been telling for years: that Camden has turned a corner to become a safer city, drawing new development, business and residents, despite its struggles.
In interviews last week, officials and a community activist theorized that the decline in killings and crime is due to the police department’s efforts, specifically in community policing, and the work of various groups and community centers that aim to keep youth from choosing gangs and violence.
They also agreed that the solution to the problem is ultimately much bigger and involves tackling issues of poverty, addiction, blight and a lack of jobs.
There is some discrepancy about how many homicides the city logged last year, as the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office puts the number at 25 for 2017.
The prosecutor’s office lists two additional deaths from 2017 because, unlike the police department, it considers certain vehicular homicide deaths and fatal shootings by police in its homicide count, a spokeswoman said.
The two deaths include Jose Antonio Fernandez-Ventura, who was shot by Officer David Stinsman Jan. 11 after the officer allegedly witnessed Fernandez-Ventura shoot his wife, and Rashanda Clements, who was struck by a vehicle in 2015 but died from her injuries last year. The medical examiner ruled her death a homicide.
Most of the homicide victims in 2017 were men in their 20s and 30s from Camden who died from gunshot wounds. Arrests have been made in 57 percent of the cases, according to the prosecutor’s office.
The youngest homicide victim in 2017 was Natalise "Kayla" Gunter, 4, who authorities say died after she was beaten by her mother's boyfriend, Najuquan Ross, 20. The second youngest was Shapaul “S.P.” Johnson, 18, a soon-to-be father who was weeks away from graduating from Camden High School when police say he was shot by another teen. Arrests have been made in both cases.
The oldest victim was Walter Chatman, 50, a father of two from Camden who was gunned down in an unsolved double-shooting in April.
Gun violence continues to be an issue, as 20 of the 23 people Camden County Police consider homicide victims died as a result of gunshot wounds.
AbdulMaalik Jackson, outreach supervisor for Cure4Camden, a community violence intervention program, said gangs and guns continue to be a problem in the city.
"The gang population is still growing,” he said, though he sees more older gang members becoming disillusioned with the lifestyle and trying to get out of it.
Asked about the availability of guns on Camden’s streets, Jackson said, “In any other city or town, if an individual is looking to get a weapon, they can always get one. Our job is really to take that out of the equation.”
Part of Cure4Camden’s mission is teaching youth alternative ways to resolve conflicts, and challenging subjects about why they feel they need to carry a gun, Jackson said.
A Camden native, Jackson believes programs and community initiatives like Cure4Camden are “absolutely” helping to reduce crime in the city. He also gives credit to the police department’s focus on community policing.
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