ATLANTIC CITY — About 100 young people and their family members biked through Stanley Homes Village, Back Maryland and other neighborhoods in the city July 4th afternoon.
The community bike-out was already planned, but in the aftermath of the deaths of two teens and one young adult in three separate shootings, the ride became a release for a community shaken by recent violence.
“You got to get their minds off of the violence sometimes, especially when it’s plaguing the city as rampantly as it is right now,” said City Councilman Jeffree Fauntleroy, who pedaled along with the group.
Two of the killings happened on the same street, North Pennsylvania Avenue, and within three days of each other. The most recent victim, Katusca Robles, 18, was found shot in an apartment in the 800 block of North Pennsylvania Avenue on July 3rd.
After a violent start to the summer and a call from a top law-enforcement official for the community to act, local leaders are pushing for ways to curb juvenile violence that experts say has grown less predictable and more volatile, especially in the social media era.
In 2018, city police reported violent crime decreased by almost 30% and homicide decreased by 46%. But the recent homicides now bring Atlantic City’s total to eight, one more than police reported overall in 2018.
Officials are seeing an increase in juveniles possessing firearms and say those involved in violent crime are getting younger.
“What we’re seeing now is a frightening trend. It’s even getting younger,” Atlantic City Police Chief Henry White told The Press of Atlantic City in February; White spoke then about gun violence in the city as part of the Reinventing Atlantic City series. He said then that while most of the crime they typically handle dealt with youth aged 18-26, that was changing.
Sixteen-year-old Quran Bazemore was shot June 15 on Arctic Avenue by an assailant who was one year younger than him. He died from his injuries on June 25.
“Gun violence is a tragic reality in our society. However, when it affects our youth we sustain an incalculable loss of human potential,” Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said. “My only question is: When will someone from our community stand up enough to give a damn?”
According to the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation, there was a 26% increase in juveniles arrested with guns in the state from 2015 to 2017.
In a public hearing held by the commission in September 2018, retired Atlantic City police Sgt. Joseph Iacovone testified that between 2014 and 2017, about 46 gang-related shootings involved 36 juveniles.
But White, in his interview earlier this year, did not put all the blame on gangs.
“Most of the time we’re seeing that some of these shootings are just over a simple dispute,” White said, adding it could be over something personal such as respect or revenge.
Another factor affecting juvenile violence is social media. Disputes that once started and ended on the street are taking shape online.
Arguments, slights and even perceived slights are generated on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, making threats more complicated.
Part of that cycle of violence is the “race” law enforcement has to face when it comes to retaliation shootings.
Jordan Reaves was shot and killed June 30 on the 300 Block of North Pennsylvania Avenue. Reeves was a suspect in a June 27 shooting that injured two bystanders and was also the victim of a shooting on Dec. 5, 2018.
City Council President Marty Small Sr. commended the Police Department and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority for recently launching a neighborhood policing program. The program assigned two officers to each of the city’s six wards who will interact with the community on a regular basis in an effort to foster better trust and communication.
But, Small said, curbing violence in the city has to include more than just police. He wants to see a community-based program introduced where regular citizens who have experience with inner city violence speak to Atlantic City youth about the perils of guns, drugs and gangs.
“We literally have babies walking around the city with guns and causing harm,” Small said. “And now, we need all hands on deck. Law enforcement can’t solve everything. It takes a whole community approach.”
For some residents that means more open discussion.
Sixty-five-year-old Valeria Marcus once lived on Pennsylvania Avenue, where Reeves and Robles were killed.
Marcus, who wants more police patrolling these areas on foot, said she’s afraid to walk down the street anymore and is “sick and tired” of the crime and gun violence.
She has relied on 911 calls and continues to speak out to improve her community, even when she’s faced backlash.
“If you have to speak up to help your community, you do it,” she said. “I want it to be written up. I want it to be exposed. It needs to be said.”
Staff writer David Danzis contributed to this report.