Handguns fill a recycling bin during Atlantic County's two-day gun buyback program in March. It was one of the joint law-enforcement efforts to reduce homicides, which were near a record high in Atlantic City in 2012. The city is looking to end this year at a 30-year low murder rate.

Edward Lea

Atlantic City has seen homicides drop to a 30-year low in 2013 — a year after a near-record number of killings.

Officials credit several factors for the 83 percent decrease from 18 homicides in 2012 to three, with only three days remaining in 2013. Among those factors are the arrests of members of the city’s two allegedly most violent drug gangs, increased partnerships among law-enforcement agencies and grass-roots outreach efforts.

“You can’t really point to any one single strategy,” Police Chief Henry White said.

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Data show a drop in violence nationwide, but Atlantic City’s decrease — including an approximate 35 percent decrease in people wounded by gunfire — has sparked optimism from those leading some of these efforts. They include the Atlantic City-Pleasantville Municipal Planning Board, which joins various entities to address the problems from different angles.

“While no one is ready to raise a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner across Atlantic Avenue, clearly 2013 was a historically safe year in Atlantic City,” said Richard Stockton College’s Israel Posner, a member of the board.

Stockton adjunct professor and statistician Anthony Marino, however, said it would take a five-year average to show any “statistical significance” in the numbers.

In fact, the last time Atlantic City had only three homicides in a single year was 1983, a year after a high of 20 killings. In 1984, that number went back up to 16, then halved in 1985 to eight.

“I’m not worried about the statistics,” acting Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain said. “I’m worried about the people the statistics represent.”

And most of those lives will be young lives, he pointed out.

In 2012, just eight of the 18 homicide victims were older than 30. This year, all three of the homicide victims were in their 20s.

The first was Tyquinn James, 25, who was killed Feb. 10. While brothers Malik and Mykal Derry were arrested a day later, it wasn’t until March 26 that police said the killing was related to the Stanley Holmes Village-based Dirty Blok gang. Then, in May, 14 members of Dirty Blok’s alleged rival gang — Back Maryland’s 800 Blok — were arrested.

“We were all fully engaged with both of those investigations,” White said of the Police Department.

The FBI led the first investigation, allowing for more severe federal charges. The second was led by the Atlantic City Task Force, a joint venture that includes city and State Police, sheriff’s officers, and members of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and state Attorney General’s Office.

“Those two arrests confirmed what we’ve always known,” White said. “It’s only a small percentage causing a majority of the crime in these communities.”

Last year was the first time the State Police had departments report their numbers monthly, rather than waiting until the Uniform Crime Report comes out next year. While most of the numbers are incomplete, they do give insight into where each town stands.

Camden — to which Atlantic City has sometimes been negatively compared — saw a near 30 percent decrease in homicides, from 61 to 43, comparing the two years through November.

In that same time, Atlantic City’s overall violent crime decreased more than 15 percent, including nearly 75 percent fewer rapes and a drop in all robberies involving a weapon of any type.

The only increase was in simple assaults, which went up more than 68 percent from 707 to 1,191.

“The conclusion is, this is possible. The reduction in violent crime is possible,” McClain said.

But officials agree the work isn’t done. By the fall, another gang was allegedly looking to fill the void left by the springtime raids.

In November, nearly two dozen people faced charges associated with Blockstarz, including alleged leader Haneef Molley — who goes by Weezy due to his resemblance to rapper Lil Wayne.

They were associated with the Bloods, and even had members from Camden and Newark coming in to help control the beach blocks of Tennessee, Ocean and North Carolina avenues and St. James Place, targeting the rooming houses in the area along with those seeking help at the John Brooks Recovery Center, Vice Unit Lt. James Sarkos said when announcing the arrests.

“The game you just won doesn’t matter anymore,” said Tom Gilbert, a retired State Police lieutenant colonel who is now commander of the city’s Tourism District. “What’s out there tomorrow?”

The Task Force’s efforts go where the information leads them. It could be from a tip picked up by a patrol officer or a vice investigation or something the Intelligence Unit has found, said Lt. David Smith of the State Police, who heads the Task Force.

“We have this opportunity now because we have this lull in crime,” White said. “We don’t only need law enforcement but everybody engaged. If we achieve that, everybody has won.”

White also pointed to the ShotSpotter system that alerts police when shots are fired in the city and tip411, which allows people to have text conversations with police while remaining anonymous.

And, when talking about the reduction in lives lost, “you can’t leave out the hospital,” White said. “They have saved a lot of lives.”

Marino pointed to a particularly violent week as November turned into December. Four people were shot within that timeframe. None was killed.

“If these guys were better shots, the number of 2013 homicides in (the city) could have more than doubled in just seven days,” he said.

“While victory is not at hand, a long-term strategy that focuses on nurturing a broad coalition of community partners is helping to raise the quality of life for the city’s residents and is helping to attract visitors by the millions,” said Posner, executive director of Stockton’s Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism.

Community is a part of that. Building on the neighborhood walks started by his predecessor, recently retired Chief Ernest Jubilee, White wants to reinstate community policing. He has said he will give his officers time to work with youth, whether through mentoring programs, youth sports or other programs in the city.

“It’s important to get involved in as many aspects of the community as we can, and get to know what the needs and the issues are in the various neighborhoods,” White said.

McClain said he was glad to hear the new chief’s plans.

“The walks and the different things in the community shows people that we haven’t forgotten about them,” he said. “That generates trust. Trust generates cooperation, which generates more success for law enforcement. It’s a positive circle.”

Contact Lynda Cohen:


@LyndaCohen on Twitter

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More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.

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