Law-enforcement and other officials say Atlantic City is safer now than ever, despite a deadly downtown attack last week on two Canadian women.
The homicides allegedly were the result of a botched robbery at the hands of a woman said to suffer from schizophrenia.
“It’s very difficult in our business to prove what you’ve prevented,” city Public Safety Director Willie Glass said. “But I know for a fact we have curtailed a great number of violent episodes.”
Additional officers on the street, however, likely would not have prevented Monday’s attack because only seconds passed between the time the two women were attacked and an officer came running to help them, he said.
“This was an aberration that really hurts us,” Glass said. “Is that a setback? Absolutely.”
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority’s Master Plan for the Tourism District, published earlier this year, cited public safety as the most important factor in the city’s real estate market, ahead of the presence of blight and undeveloped land and general economic conditions.
The Master Plan documented several “crime hot spots,” identifying 13 establishments on a “Nuisance Properties Map.” One nightclub had nearly 200 calls, and a second had more than 100 within the span of only nine months, the map shows.
The plan, which focuses primarily on development initiatives and aesthetic improvements, centers on the idea that all suggested development initiatives will lead to a cleaner and safer Atlantic City. Suggestions include improved lighting, landscaped streets and opening up the ground floors of casinos for retail shops and restaurants to encourage more foot traffic on city streets.
The number of Boardwalk Ambassadors, who serve as guides for tourists and as a neighborhood watch, will have increased from 22 last summer to 60 by Memorial Day. The CRDA will spend $1.6 million on the program, more than three times what it spent last summer.
“If you have a lot of people owning the streets … then you reduce the incidents of these kinds of antisocial activities,” CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri said.
Law-enforcement officials said that even before Monday’s attacks, they had stepped up policing efforts by working to bolster foot patrols and creating a task force as part of the district’s “clean and safe” initiative.
“What’s happening behind the scenes is, the task force is rooting out the source of violent crimes in Atlantic City,” said Deputy Attorney General Jim Ruberton, who heads the Atlantic City Task Force. “We have indicted 60 cases since our inception (in August). We have taken dozens of guns off the street, including assault rifles and handguns.”
Members of the group include the city’s Police Department, state Attorney General’s Office, State Police, Division of Criminal Justice, Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office, Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and State Parole Board.
“Essentially our primary goal is to prevent violent crimes in Atlantic City,” Ruberton said. “Based upon the results we have so far, it is working.”
Long before Monday’s attack, plans had been in place for an increased police presence, officials said.
For instance, there are 26 recruits in a Special Law Enforcement Officer II program that will put Class II officers on the street in July. The officers have similar powers to full-time police, but they cannot take their guns home and their jurisdiction is limited only to the town they are hired in and the hours that they work. They are also paid hourly, not salaried, saving taxpayer-funded benefits.
Putting these officers on the Boardwalk is expected to free the full-time officers to go into the neighborhoods, increasing their street presence. A new work schedule will also put more officers on the street at peak times, Glass said.
Some researchers said high crime rates often are associated with resort destinations because criminals see tourists as “perfect” victims who typically carry larger sums of cash and likely won’t be around to testify or pursue police for an arrest.
“Tourists have a lot of valuable stuff, and it’s tempting (to criminals),” said Meda Chesney-Lind, a criminologist and professor at the University of Hawaii. “You really are a perfect victim.”
The criminologist published a study in 1985 that showed a relationship between tourism and crime in two counties in Hawaii, suggesting that tourists are disproportionately crime victims in resort destinations and their presence can work to increase the crime rate.
Chesney-Lind said she believed the study’s findings still held true and would be applicable to Atlantic City because it is a tourist destination.
“Tourism really drives the crime rate,” she said.
Regardless of what the statistics show, the public’s perception of safety in the city took a beating in light of the latest events.
Bridgette Hall, of Wilmington, Del., who visits the resort a couple of times each year, said she considered the stabbings a “freak accident.”
“I’m very shocked. Any time at night you have to be careful, but during the day I would think you’re supposed to be relatively safe,” Hall said.
It is difficult to combat perceptions in the immediate aftermath of the tragedies, Palmieri said.
“It’s really tough to say, ‘Well, but look at all the positive things that are happening and the work we’re doing and the plans in place,” he said. “It’s a little bit hollow to be talking about that in the immediate aftermath of such a terrible event.”
Since legislation was enacted last year enabling the creation of the Tourism District, four out-of-state visitors have been killed within its borders; 18 others have died in and around the area.
Besides the latest killings, Cheng Jain Lin, 52, of New York, died earlier this year after a Christmas Eve fight with another New York man in the bus area of Caesars Atlantic City. Last year, Sunil Rattu, 28, of Old Bridge Township, Middlesex County, was abducted from the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort parking garage, shot to death and found off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Rattu’s girlfriend, Radha Ghetia, also was wounded in the attack carried out by three alleged gang members from Camden.
The city has recorded eight homicides this year, 14 last year, nine in 2010, 12 each in 2009 and 2008 and seven in 2007. Atlantic City also has a high rate of violent crime, 19.68 incidents per 1,000 people, which is more than double that of Las Vegas’ rate of 8.93, according to 2010 crime statistics from the FBI — the latest available from the agency. However, the crime rates are based on Atlantic City’s year-round population of 40,000 and Las Vegas’ 1.4 million.
When legislators passed the bill calling for the creation of the Tourism District on Feb. 1, 2011, it included a requirement for a public-safety plan.
The Atlantic City Alliance, a public-private coalition funded by casino money, has initiated a five-year, $150 million marketing campaign featuring TV commercials, print ads and other literature encouraging people to “Do AC.” The campaign, which started last month, focuses on drawing more visitors from the Northeast, particularly from New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Yet the cities where the campaign is focused also have seen media coverage of the stabbings. Liza Cartmell, chief executive officer of the Alliance, said the agency did make some changes to its marketing approach last week. Television ads that would have run during news broadcasts were pulled so the competing messages weren’t juxtaposed.
“There’s a lot of sensationalism in terms of the approaches of some of the papers. While they might not necessarily be incorrect, they’re not particularly equitable,” Cartmell said. “I think the vast majority of people understand that this was a random event. Atlantic City has a story to tell, and it’s more important than ever that the story be told.”
Atlantic City isn’t the only destination that has been faced with rebuilding its image after a crime. In New Orleans last year, five separate shootings amid Halloween celebrations in the heart of the city’s French Quarter — its main tourist area — left two dead and 14 injured.
Violence that occurred during one of the city’s busiest weekends also incited discussion about the city’s appeal to tourists.
“This kind of thing happens just about every day in Philadelphia and New York, in tourist destinations and in any major or even minor urban environment,” Cartmell said. “We’re not unique in that sense.”
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