Marketing Atlantic City as “clean and safe” was the main goal when Gov. Chris Christie created the Tourism District.
But ask law-enforcement leaders about the safety of the areas within that designation, and they refuse to differentiate.
“We don’t have a separate city, per se,” said Tourism District Commander Tom Gilbert, a retired State Police lieutenant colonel. “There’s a neighborhood entwined with commerce entwined with the Boardwalk and beach, and then casinos in the mix. Every area of the city is a blend of something.”
The Uniform Crime Report covers the city as one entity. That means one crime number — and one perception of how safe it is.
“The perception is whatever the public thinks it is,” Gilbert said.
Sometimes, that’s not good.
This year has started off with three homicides and five people wounded by gunfire — including two before noon Saturday.
Even with last year’s low homicide rate and decrease in gun violence, Atlantic City had to contend with the label of “seventh most dangerous city in America.”
Using the UCR numbers, that report notes that one out of 57 people could become the victim of a crime in the city. But leaders have long fought using the numbers that way, saying it takes into account only the city’s year-round population rather than the millions of visitors each year and the thousands of employees who work in the city.
Despite not agreeing with how those numbers are used, Gilbert said it’s understood that there is no separate number for the district.
“We all own the UCR stats,” he said. “That’s why we’ve built the partnerships out the way that we have.”
“From a law-enforcement standpoint, it’s just another section of town,” Police Chief Henry White said of the district, later adding, “Policing is done a little more efficiently and effectively than probably we’ve had in the past. It has to be, because we’re doing it with less.”
That means crime in any part of the city affects the entire city — and its image to potential visitors.
That image wasn’t helped by a near-record number of homicides in 2012, nor by the rare but headline-making violence that has occurred in the tourist areas.
Two tourists were fatally stabbed in 2011 during a morning attack by a schizophrenic homeless woman from Philadelphia. Within 16 months from 2010 to 2011, two people were killed and another wounded in two separate parking garage abductions.
Then, last year, the area celebrated some success with the takedown of two of the city’s allegedly most dangerous drug gangs.
The city’s murder total went from 18 to three. Shooting incidents also declined.
Although officials won’t point to spots on the map where crime is higher, they did say that the two gangs — one based in Stanley Holmes Village and one in Back Maryland — accounted for more than half the violent crime in the city.
Meanwhile, the Tourism District has given the city more help, including the hiring of Boardwalk Ambassadors, who — in addition to aiding tourists — are tasked with being extra eyes and ears to alert police to problems.
Last month, Boardwalk Ambassador Ryan Mazzeo helped police track down a robbery suspect after he saw the man running away while at his Indiana Avenue post. Another ambassador, Jeff Hannon, tried to stop the driver of the cab the suspect hopped into, but when the man refused to stop, police wound up tracking the suspect down — and Mazzeo helped identify him.
What most point to as the best example of the law-enforcement partnership is the Atlantic City Task Force, which combines city, county, state and federal agencies in a way that makes the whole much stronger than the sum of its parts, said Deputy Attorney General Jim Ruberton, who heads the Atlantic City office.
The team meets every day inside its headquarters in the Tourism District.
Information is gathered from various sources, including the city police department’s Vice, Intelligence and Patrol units, said Lt. David Smith of the State Police, who heads the Task Force.
“We get real-time information and see what the trends are,” he said. “The mindset is, we’re proactive. There’s a constant back and forth. Without them, we wouldn’t have the success we’ve had.”
That success includes 500 arrests since the Task Force began its work Aug. 8, 2011. They have taken 57 firearms off the streets, seized $97,000 in cash and confiscated large quantities of drugs, including 460 ounces of marijuana, 132 ounces of heroin, 47 ounces of crack and 29 ounces of cocaine. They also confiscated about 375 prescription pills and 5.3 ounces of MDMA, known as Molly.
“The Violent Crime Task Force is a living, breathing thing,” Gilbert said.
For instance — due to where many of the investigations led — membership now includes the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, along with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“The more resources you have, the more flexibility you have,” acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain said. “The more sources of information you have, the more effective a law-enforcement agency.”
“We’ve come up with strategic ideas and initiatives,” Smith said.
“The ACPD helps drive those strategies,” Gilbert added.
“Sometimes it’s a short-term operation,” Smith said. “Sometimes it’s longer term and more involved.”
And sometimes, it’s knowing the job is never really done.
After the gang arrests, there was a lull in violence. But officials knew it wouldn’t last. Another group would try to fill in.
In November, 19 people were charged in a drug-and-guns investigation into Blockstarz, a gang allegedly formed in summer 2011, when several associates of the Dirty Block street gang were run out of Stanley Holmes Village.
2014 has had a violent beginning. Three people were killed in a 10-day span — including a 13-year-old who had just gotten out of school. Five others were shot, including a woman caught in the crossfire of a gunfight in Stanley Holmes Village.
“Is (Atlantic City) a safe place for a visit?” a visitor from Israel asked in an email to a reporter for The Press of Atlantic City.
She and others were planning an eight-night trip to New York City and were to take a casino bus to spend two nights in Atlantic City.
“Would you recommend it?” she asked. “Is it safe ... walking the streets and outlets?”
For those in charge of safety, it’s those ongoing perceptions — as well as the reality — that keep them working as one.
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