When Danielle Fletcher, who has lived in Atlantic City all 43 years of her life, saw a group of boys arguing outside the Atlantic Avenue barbershop where her sons were getting their hair cut, her first instinct was that things might escalate.
“I was sitting outside, and I said let me move my car because I said the next thing you know there’s going to be a gun pulled out,” she said.
Fletcher’s 17-year-old son was killed in October 2016 by a stray bullet in what is believed to be a random act of violence at a house party. The incident, which happened on her then 12-year-old son’s birthday, is still unsolved.
Atlantic City’s overall rate of death from gunshot wounds is less than cities like Newark and Camden, but it is four times higher than the state rate and disproportionately affects black men. In Atlantic City, where one in four residents are under the age of 18, structure and opportunities for young people are lacking, according to experts. Finding a way to keep young people out of trouble should be a focus in a city where eight out of 10 gang shootings involved teenagers.
“They’re all divided,” Fletcher said. “They don’t put up their fists anymore. They’re grabbing guns.”
Special Counsel Jim Johnson said in his September report on the state of Atlantic City that gangs are still a “prominent concern,” but Fletcher and police Chief Henry White both hesitate to put most of the blame for the city’s gun violence on gangs.
“Most of the time we’re seeing that some of these shootings are just over a simple dispute,” White said.
Whether linked to gang activity or not, law-enforcement officials have noticed that juvenile violence has grown less structured and more volatile in Atlantic City and in the state, especially in the social media era.
In 2018, city police reported that violent crime decreased almost 30% and homicide decreased 46%.
But even with the decline in crime, officials are seeing an
increase in juveniles possessing firearms and say those involved in violent crime are getting younger.
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, retired Atlantic City police Sgt. Joseph Iacovone, who said he led all shooting investigations from 2013 to 2017 in the Police Department’s Violent Crimes Unit, testified that a large percentage of their time was spent focusing on juvenile violent offenders and “neighborhood-based gangs.”
In Atlantic City, between 2014 and 2017, about 46 gang-related shootings involved 36 juveniles, Iacovone said at the hearing.
Iacovone said then that Atlantic City has three or four neighborhood-based gangs, groups characterized as having less of the hierarchy seen in national gangs like the Bloods or the Crips, with more fluid roles and a hyperlocal focus.
“I live there, so here I am,” said Edwin Torres, president of the East Coast Gang Investigators Association, a nonprofit network of criminal justice professionals that provides information and training for law enforcement about street gangs. "Not only do I know this individual, I know their mother, I know their father, I know their extended family. The bond is much deeper.”
While most gangs have ties to drug enterprises, officials said neighborhood gangs often have more to do with reputation and image.
“It's harder to pin down random violence for reputation sake,” said Torres, who has specialized in gang behavior during his more than 30 year career in law enforcement.
Another factor affecting juvenile violence is social media. Disputes that once started and ended on the street are taking shape online.
“The cycle of violence continues. It's perpetrated longer, and it’s wider,” Torres said.
While in the past, law enforcement had to work hard to find out whether suspects were gang members, now they find blatant posts about gang activity on social media.
“We used to have an adage: A good gang cop can’t be behind a desk. Now, a good gang cop has to really know how to search the internet and be adept to social media,” Torres said.
Police Sgt. Kevin Fair said the department's Community Relations Unit and school resource officers interact with students, faculty and staff from kindergarten through high school.
"Oftentimes, officers hear of issues within the school and are able to quell those issues before they could turn potentially violent," he said.
Along with measures by police, many other groups try to treat the issue from all angles, from to education to economics to public health.
“If you can’t arrest your way out of this, then you have to put something in the community that attracts people at a very young age to do the right thing,” said Perry Mays, chairman of Atlantic County's Coalition for a Safe Community.
Last year, the coalition held 10 community walks through neighborhoods to empower residents, police and community groups to take back their neighborhoods.
In its section dedicated to public safety, the Johnson report said the state, county and city should work together to improve the lives of youth.
“They all have question marks on their lives. They don’t know from day to day if they’re going to make it,” Fletcher said.
The city offers recreation programs, but residents like Fletcher would like to see them more widespread and consistent. Her son likes to swim and play basketball, but he used to play hockey, baseball and the drums — all options she said disappeared over the years.
Construction of a new teen center dedicated to serving ages 13 to 18 is underway at the Boys and Girls Club’s Pennsylvania Avenue location, which will serve about 400 more teens. The club currently serves about 1,900 youth in the city each year.
Carrera said the space will provide a dedicated, after-school space for the city’s teens, who previously had to wait until 6 p.m. after the younger kids cleared out for access.
The center is designed to keep them on a positive path to a career and out of poverty with college readiness programs and workforce development in hospitality, health and technology.
She and her cousin Kellie Cors-Atherly started the nonprofit Peace Amongst Youth, which holds meetings and cookouts where people in the city affected by violent crime can meet, share their stories or just have something to do.
For Fletcher, sometimes it's as simple as offering the young people who pack her house some Sunday nights a home-cooked meal.
She worries about the weather getting nicer in the city, which so far has four homicides this year.
The hope is that youth will join programs like the coalition's seven-week summer photography course. Instead of shooting guns, Mays said, they can shoot pictures of their neighborhoods.
But along with community groups helping youth, many want them to have their own voice.
The city's Citizens Advisory Board, started to connect citizens and police, plans to appoint two youth members, ages 18 to 25.
Along with teaching those who run the city, the youth may be the best suited to help each other through the city's challenges.
“Youth can tell youth, and youth will listen to youth,” Mays said.