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Atlantic City crime rooted in addicted people, abandoned homes, residents say

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ATLANTIC CITY — A bright yellow backhoe sat on top of five feet of rubble in the middle of Keener Avenue in the resort’s Westside neighborhood Thursday evening. A bedroom door flapped on its hinges inside half a row home, the house’s insides exposed.

“These communities used to be thriving with families and kids,” said Indra Owens, 37, pointing to a vacant lot beside a boarded-up home stuffed with trash and couches. “What’s happening is, when these houses start becoming this, it fosters an atmosphere for crime.”

Police have been working to put the emphasis on places like vacant lots and abandoned homes via Risk Terrain Modeling, a method that analyzes crime data to compute geographical risk factors for crime in a community. 

“We like that philosophy, and we think that goes along well with our community policing policy,” Deputy Chief James Sarkos said. “Not to target people because they’re in a specific location, but to target that location itself.”

For example, the city’s many convenience stores proved to be a risk factor for crime, according to the model, so the department responded by assigning officers to interact with store owners each shift, Sarkos said. They’ve done the same with vacant lots and rooming houses.

“What we found is that (officers are) getting out of their cars and going into these locations and it’s good community policing and it gives us better visibility in these areas that we need to target, that are priorities,” he said.

Joel Caplan, a Rutgers University criminal justice associate professor, and his colleague Leslie Kennedy developed Risk Terrain Modeling in 2009. Caplan said the method is working in Atlantic City to reduce crime, saying RTM has had “significant implications for reductions of crime in the areas they focused on and citywide.”

Caplan said the model is a predictive tool that looks at the relationships between the crimes that are occurring and the features in the environment — liquor stores, pawn shops, grocery stores, parking lots, fast food restaurants, parks, schools — places that could be intuitively risky and others that aren’t.

“It informs decisions about what’s attracting illegal behavior and then allows the decision-makers to come up with strategies to intervene at those locations, not by focusing on the people but by figuring out what the contexts are that attract illegal behavior and trying to change the environment to change those contexts," he said. "And that’s what Atlantic City did successfully.” 

Atlantic City's crime rate has been dropping for 26 years, according to New Jersey Municipal-County Offense & Demographic Data. The city's 2018 year-end report showed violent crime decreased by nearly 30 percent and non-violent crime decreased by nearly 32 percent from 2017.

But crime rates are not as low as state leaders would like to see, with few residents or visitors reporting a sense of safety and order, according to Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy who wrote a report released last year that outlines recommendations for the city to move forward.

Some residents say poverty, addiction, mental health problems, abandoned homes and other squalor are working to keep the city a haven for crime.

In places that are poorer, there is more street crime, said Nathan Link, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University–Camden.

“It doesn’t mean that any poor individual is necessarily more criminal than a rich individual,” he cautioned. “There are lots of poor people who are completely law-abiding, and there are many wealthy criminals.”

Social and historical forces have created high-poverty areas that have a lot of crime, Link said, adding the least well-off people are the ones who tend to be stuck in those types of places without jobs and, as a result, alternative — often illegal — economies spring up, creating a cycle of poverty and crime.

“It has nothing to do with the people in these areas being intrinsically bad,” Link said. “It has to do with some areas being so deeply disadvantaged that many of their residents struggle through life, and the broader community doesn’t have the capacity or resources to reduce crime.”

Owens said she isn't insensitive to the problems the addicted and sick are dealing with, but it’s “out of control."

”That itself breeds crime,” Owens said. “When you’re hungry and you want to get high and you’re in a strange place, it breeds crime. You used to be able to really pinpoint the neighborhoods where you could maybe still sleep with your door open, or unlocked. That’s nowhere now.”

Atlantic City Crime Data

Year Crime Index Total Violent Crime Non-Violent Crime Crime Rate per 1,000 Violent Crime Rate per 1,000 Nonviolent Crime Rate per 1,000 Murder Rape Robbery Aggravated Assault Nonviolent Burglary Nonviolent Larceny Nonviolent Motor Vehicle Theft Arson
1990 15601 1446 14155 410.7 38.1 372.6 14 70 691 671 1408 12233 524 125
1989 15137 1209 13928 432.3 34.5 397.8 15 67 558 569 1440 11936 552 141
1991 15375 1444 13931 404.8 38.0 366.7 15 82 657 690 1751 11623 557 96
1992 13664 1296 12368 359.7 34.1 325.6 8 53 593 642 1505 10308 555 104
1993 11943 1345 10598 314.4 35.4 279.0 11 46 658 630 1274 9813 411 103
1994 9709 1063 8646 255.6 28.0 227.6 9 27 581 446 828 7483 335 104
1995 10614 968 9646 290.3 26.5 263.8 15 42 565 346 1258 8032 356 138
1996 10510 889 9621 287.4 24.3 263.1 11 48 451 379 863 8431 327 199
1997 10650 846 9804 277.6 22.1 255.6 12 61 463 310 926 8583 295 197
1998 9147 711 8436 238.4 18.5 219.9 14 33 391 273 1035 7094 307 258
1999 9072 640 8432 238.3 16.8 221.5 5 27 327 281 872 7338 222 73
2000 7534 544 6990 185.9 13.4 172.5 11 30 290 213 682 6071 237 92
2001 7268 629 6639 179.4 15.5 163.9 7 33 268 321 689 5772 178 29
2002 6319 751 5568 156.0 18.5 137.4 5 26 320 400 510 4872 186 56
2003 6024 621 5403 150.0 15.5 134.5 5 23 287 306 602 4636 165 13
2004 5786 707 5079 143.3 17.5 125.8 5 36 321 345 600 4298 181 15
2005 5708 772 4936 140.7 19.0 121.6 9 44 385 334 558 4224 154 15
2006 5357 822 4535 132.7 20.4 112.3 18 46 375 383 510 3821 204 8
2007 4745 886 3859 118.7 22.2 96.6 7 28 473 378 548 3111 200 16
2008 3598 671 2927 90.7 16.9 73.8 11 37 303 320 263 2504 160 7
2009 4109 840 3269 104.3 21.3 83.0 11 32 415 372 386 2749 134 20
2010 4790 898 3892 110.6 20.7 89.8 11 29 486 372 549 3215 128 14
2011 4239 760 3479 97.8 17.5 80.3 13 22 395 330 573 2802 104 5
2012 3694 707 2987 93.5 17.9 75.6 18 35 326 328 482 2417 88 4
2013 3647 698 2949 92.3 17.7 74.7 3 9 373 313 394 2482 73 2
2014 3465 541 2924 87.6 13.7 73.9 6 15 313 207 283 2577 64 0
2015 3622 628 2994 91.5 15.9 75.6 7 17 364 240 306 2612 76 1
2016 2797 490 2307 71.2 12.5 58.8 12 23 275 180 268 1960 79 1

Contact: 609-272-7241

mbilinski@pressofac.com

Twitter @ACPressMollyB

Staff Writer

My beat is public safety, following police and crime. I started in January 2018 here at the Press covering Egg Harbor and Galloway townships. Before that, I worked at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., covering crime and writing obituaries.

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