A dramatic increase in shootings and a significant jump in other violent crime in Camden since the city's massive police layoff could be a sobering omen of what's to come, authorities said Wednesday as initial 2011 statistics were released.
Violent crime jumped 19 percent and aggravated assaults with firearms 259 percent over the same time period last year in Camden, according to a report from the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.
"I can't tell you we're seeing an increase in crime because of the layoffs," said Thomas Garrity Jr., chief of investigations for the Prosecutor's Office. "I do know we have the perfect storm that includes a sluggish economy, the proliferation of national gangs, and a reduction of police manpower throughout the county."
More than 160 police officers were laid off in Camden Jan. 18 because of a $26.5 million budget deficit. Nearly half the force - those with less than 13 years of experience - was fired. Superior officers were demoted to replenish patrols.
"We see less cops now," said Sylvia Lopez, 28, a recent Kaplan University graduate in business administration, who lived near downtown until she moved to the Centerville section recently. "Stuff was getting bad, a lot of drugs and prostitution."
Centerville resident Kahna Harris, 23, is studying to be a certified nursing assistant, and she said crime was getting worse, pointing to a weekend shooting that killed one person and injured two others at Royden and Sixth Streets.
"Even though there were shootings before the cops got laid off, it wasn't as bad as it is now," Harris said.
But Osvaldo Fernandez, general manager of Broadway Market in the Waterfront South neighborhood, said he had seen more officers during the day.
"I feel protected," Fernandez said. "They're around all day long. Before they would drive by, but they wouldn't stay out here like they are now."
Garrity, who has been in law enforcement for 25 years, said he found the recent spike in crime particularly disturbing. Typically, crime slows in the winter.
"It's alarming that it came in such a condensed time period when we usually see dips in crime. This bucks the trend," Garrity said.
Aggravated assaults with firearms increased from 22 in January and February 2010 to 79 this year. Murder and robbery were down; rape was up slightly.
Additionally, nonviolent crime increased 14 percent, with burglaries up 60 percent, from 130 reported last year compared with 208 this year.
The increases came after city, state, and local officials launched a crime initiative they say reduced violent crime 2 percent last year, the first decrease in Camden in recent years.
Eugene O'Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said that although the increase in numbers was worrisome, it was too soon to know whether "the sky is falling."
"That's not a good place to be early in the year," O'Donnell said. "Camden was in a bad enough situation before the layoffs. It's very disheartening to get this news."
Aggravated assaults, he said, can easily lead to more homicides.
"You get 12 bad shooters, you have zero murders, but you have 12 aggravated assaults," O'Donnell said. "You get 12 good shooters, you have 12 homicides."
While authorities analyze the statistics, he said, "the question is: What resources do you have to immediately deal with this?"
Last year, Camden's crime rate was rising, with a spike of 30 shootings in May. Police Chief Scott Thomson created a command-fighting squad to hit the toughest neighborhoods. The squad included city, county, state, and federal officials. Shootings leveled, and the year ended with a reduction in crime.
Mayor Dana Redd would not comment Wednesday, but her office released a statement that her commitment to public safety had "never wavered" and that she continued negotiating union concessions that would let her rehire police with a balanced budget.
"The unfortunate fact is that criminal activity is cyclical and is up throughout the state," her release said.
Garrity said he was unsure the city could afford to keep ahead of the criminals as crime spread citywide, particularly robberies.
"We're in that great unknown area," he said, noting that the Prosecutor's Office will lose 68 people if more layoffs are not averted. "The fact of the matter is we're losing a lot of people."