ATLANTIC CITY — A little less than two hours before the sun rose over the city Feb. 10, Demond Tally was shot dead as he walked from his neighbor’s home to his own on Presbyterian Avenue.
Tally, whose son was shot to death outside the Hamilton Mall in 2016, became the third person this year to die from a gunshot wound in Atlantic City and the sixth to be shot here.
While Atlantic City’s rate of death from gunshot wounds is less than cities like Newark and Camden, it is four times higher than the state rate and disproportionately affects black men. Law enforcement and legislation play a part in stemming gun violence, but in the past few years, medical professional organizations have called for a public health response. Local doctors agree it could help, and success has been seen in other cities in the United States, such as Wilmington, Delaware.
“It definitely is a public health issue, as far as I’m concerned,” said Dr. James Eakins, trauma medical director for AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City, who sees patients with injuries ranging from intentional to accidental gunshot wounds.
The Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma released a statement in December announcing that “firearm violence is a public health crisis of epidemic proportions” and made several recommendations.
“EAST believes that saving individual lives without addressing the underpinnings of violence and the obvious vector, firearms, is contributing to the ongoing suffering,” the statement reads.
Wilmington, a city of about 73,000 residents, took a unique step in its attempts to reduce gun violence: The city commissioned the Center for Disease Control in 2013 to study the issue in relation to public health after 127 shootings resulted in 154 victims, 18 of them dead.
Wilmington Councilwoman Hanifa Shabazz said the study, completed in 2015, looked at risk factors among the perpetrators, such as unemployment just prior to a shooting, something 86 percent of gunmen shared. The idea was to share information among agencies to efficiently flag individuals with a high risk for violence and intervene with services.
Shabazz said that because problems take hold in childhood, social workers in schools are a new addition in the city, and night and weekend hours were added at community centers to keep kids out of trouble.
Compiling a comprehensive database through which agencies can share information has proved one of the hardest fixes to implement, Shabazz said.
She said a recent economic boom in the city has alleviated some of poverty’s impact on gun violence, and smarter community policing has worked, too.
In 2017, 166 incidents left 32 dead. Last year, 19 people died in 71 shootings.
It’s a good start, Shabazz said.
“We still need the support of our police department, yes,” she said. “But we know that we could not police our way out of it. … We knew that we needed to address the root cause of what is causing this epidemic of violence.”
The report on revitalizing Atlantic City released over the summer by Special Counsel Jim Johnson talks about public safety and suggests police play a significant role in reducing violence through targeting of youth. It suggested more use of the Police Athletic League to intervene before a young person is barred from employment due to felony conviction, which increases poverty and further contributes to violence.
Atlantic City police Chief Henry M. White Jr. agreed, repeating an adage, “The best way to stop a bullet is with a job.”
White said the Police Department is trying to tackle the issue from a variety of angles, including working with JEVS Human Services to identify at-risk youth in the community.
“Children in Atlantic City see more gun violence than they need to see. A lot of our kids are walking around with (post-traumatic stress disorder) from the violence that they are exposed to in our city,” he said.
Atlantic City is making headway in its gun violence problems, according to the latest numbers from the Atlantic City Uniform Crime Report. In 2018, the city saw a decrease in homicides of 46 percent. In addition to the seven homicides, there were 20 nonfatal shootings.
White said there are various reasons for shootings, from gangs to revenge to immaturity to accidents.
“We’re seeing that most of these shootings are just from a simple dispute,” White said.
Although New Jersey has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, Eakins said the accessibility of guns needs to be examined, as does mental health, especially in cases of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. He said there also has to be a focus on violence and injury prevention programs that address conflict resolution.
Eakins said firearms education needs to be treated the same way we teach about other hazards like driving. Medical experts agree and have cited success in public health campaigns around smoking cessation.
White said he believes gun violence is being acknowledged as a public health threat.
“Now we need to come together and decide what we’re going to do about it,” he said.
Staff Writer Colt Shaw contributed to this report.
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