Atlantic County is on pace to reach the most homicides in at least five years even as public safety and community leaders look for ways to curb violence.
The fatal shooting of an Atlantic City man Monday night in Pleasantville was the county’s 21st homicide this year — just two fewer than all of last year, with more than three months left in 2012. That could be significant. In 2009, when the county had 27 homicides, 10 came after Sept. 26.
“Obviously, it’s a matter of tremendous concern,” acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain said. “Whether it’s 10, 15 or seven, it’s a concern both preventing homicides and solving homicides once they’re committed.”
Atlantic City is leading the way with 15 homicides this year, the most since 2006, when 18 people were killed. That was also a record year for homicides in the county, with 29, including four prostitutes found dead in a ditch in Egg Harbor Township’s West Atlantic City section.
Stop the Silence barbecues, a tipline that allows people to text back and forth with police anonymously and a new chaplain program just adopted by Atlantic City Council on Wednesday are some of the new ideas leaders hope will quell the violence.
Marlene M. Jackson sees the fear in her hometown.
“People are afraid for our children, our grandchildren. Afraid for themselves,” says the pastor who grew up in Atlantic City’s inlet section. “(The violence) has taken on a course all its own.”
Jackson is doing what she can. A quarter-century as a pastor has brought her to the streets to minister to those who need help. She preaches hope for those she says have lost it, and wants to work to “repair the breach” she says happens when those released from prison try to turn their lives around.
“There is no bridge between that lifestyle and getting back to mainstream society,” she said.
Jackson saw it with her own son, who returned from serving a drug sentence and was unable to even get a driver’s license. But she hopes to provide assistance through Atlantic City Miracle House, which would let those returning from incarceration — men, women and juveniles — stay and get the help they need.
“There’s a root,” Jackson said. “Drugs, money, prestige, power.”
People think they need to commit crimes and carry a gun to survive, Jackson said.
“The violence on the streets becomes a mental image of survival,” she said. “It’s a false image, but it’s the image. It becomes a war on the streets against themselves.”
Grover Savage Jr. used to be part of that life. He did drugs and carried a gun. At one point, he was arrested for possession of a knife. He says he’s a success story. He also says the violence against tourists is from outsiders.
“It’s random people coming here, saying, ‘Let me see what I can take,’” he said.
But the violence in the neighborhoods is personal.
“There are vendettas, most definitely,” Savage said. “But those vendettas are secluded to specific areas, like Back Maryland and Stanley Holmes Village.”
About eight of Atlantic City’s 15 homicides this year were likely neighborhood problems. Two, including the recent death of a 6-month-old boy, were domestic incidents. And at least one was a person caught in the crossfire.
Jose Ortiz had just left his mother’s Stanley Holmes apartment the afternoon of Sept. 6 when he biked into an apparent gunfight. He died of a single gunshot wound. No information has been released on who may have been fighting or why — and no arrests have been made in that killing.
“The corner definitely will be turned when people in Atlantic City indicate and make clear they’ve had enough,” McClain said. “We need people — and I don’t use this word a lot — to be heroes. We need people willing to stand up for their kids and the community.”
Atlantic City police Chief Ernest Jubilee said his department is working with community groups and organizations on crime-prevention programs specific to certain areas.
“The ACPD works every day to reduce violence,” Jubilee said. “We have partnered with county, state and federal law-enforcement agencies to target criminal activity citywide.”
Walking beats and bike patrols have resumed in high-crime areas, after Jubilee transferred several officers out of certain departments and into patrol.
McClain lauded that decision, even though it also meant taking two detectives who had been working in his office’s Major Crimes Unit, which investigates homicides.
Prosecutor’s Office detectives were then redistributed, adding even more to that unit: “We want to get the solve rate to 100 percent,” he said.
Right now, it’s at about 48 percent, with arrests in 10 of the 21 homicides. Atlantic City’s rate is better than that, with arrests in nine of the 15 killings.
Much focus has been brought to the failure to close the high-profile killing of radio personality April Kauffman, 47, who was found shot to death in her Linwood home early May 10. Then-Prosecutor Ted Housel had expressed confidence that the case “should ultimately result in a successful investigation.” But he did not give a timeframe.
McClain had no new information to release on the case Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the city leading the county’s homicide rate continues to offer new ideas.
That includes Wednesday night’s passage of a police chaplain program that would pair clergy with police to help with such things as domestic incidents, death notifications and dealing with grieving, scared and sometimes angry residents at crime scenes.
“Community outreach isn’t as easy as some think because people are fearful,” Jackson said. “When people are fearful, they’re not honest.”
She takes her ministry to the social areas, where people shop and eat. The community is more open where they conduct their daily business rather than where they lay their heads, she explained.
Jackson hopes to train for the police chaplain program, saying it would help to get her message to the residents where they live when they really need spiritual guidance.
The city also just instituted Tip411, a program that allows people to text or email information to police anonymously — and even have a discussion, without revealing their identities.
While some have expressed concerns that the tips would be traced, McClain said often those types of tips — while helpful to getting an arrest — would likely not be helpful in a courtroom because it’s hearsay. But, he said, it can be key to an investigation and finding the evidence that can lead to a conviction.
“The program is designed to guarantee anonymity,” he said. “We have no plans to pierce that.”
But there are plans to meet with Atlantic City and others to brainstorm on more ideas to stem the violence.
“You try everything,” McClain said. “And, when you’re finished trying everything, you think up more things to try.”
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