Police and community members are grappling with an increase in homicides in Paterson. Violence associated with gangs and drugs in the 4th Ward was exacerbated by the pandemic, officials say.
PATERSON — Once dubbed the “Murder Capital,” Camden last year had fewer shooting deaths and fewer non-fatal gunshot victims than it did in 2019, according to data provided by the New Jersey State Police.
Meanwhile, about 35 miles north along the Delaware River, Trenton’s shooting deaths almost tripled in 2020, climbing to 36 from 13 in 2019, State Police data showed.
That contrast between the two cities reflects the significant disparities in shooting incidents during 2020 among the New Jersey’s “Big Five” in crime statistics — Paterson, Camden, Jersey City, Newark and Trenton.
Paterson and Trenton endured record numbers of homicides and shootings last year, while Camden’s numbers went down, and Newark’s gun killings remained flat while its shootings rose. Jersey City’s had sharp increases, but its totals did not reach record levels.
In speaking of Paterson’s 2020 crime surge, Mayor Andre Sayegh and Public Safety Director Jerry Speziale repeatedly pointed out that cities across America endured staggering increases in homicides and gun violence last year as law enforcement officers struggled to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and the public backlash over George Floyd’s police-custody death.
Paterson Press asked the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office and New Jersey State Police for an explanation for the disparities in major crime statistics among what authorities have called the “Big Five.” Neither provided any specific answers for the differences in the numbers from city to city.
“Regarding shooting deaths and shootings, we’re not in a position to address the differences among individual cities,” said Peter Aseltine, spokesman for the attorney general’s office. “The big picture is that shootings and homicides were up dramatically across the United States in 2020, a year which saw communities under stress for multiple reasons, led by the COVID pandemic.”
“To be clear,” Aseltine added, “the fact that New Jersey was not alone in seeing more gun violence in no way diminishes our concern or our resolve to address this head on. Law enforcement will continue to work collaboratively, as we did throughout 2020, to keep our communities safe and secure.”
The attorney general’s office and State Police also cited various operations targeting gangs and gun traffickers designed to curtail violence in New Jersey’s cities.
‘No easy explanation’
David Kennedy, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said he wasn’t surprised by the disparities in 2020 crime statistics for New Jersey’s cities.
“There’s no easy explanation,” Kennedy said. “Homicides and gun violence are always city-specific stats. Every city is different.”
Unraveling the reasons why some New Jersey cities had record crime numbers and others did not would require a case-by-case analysis of the incidents, Kennedy said.
Thurman Barnes, assistant director of the New Jersey Gun Violence Research Center at Rutgers University, said the data hasn’t been analyzed yet, but he thinks the pandemic ultimately will prove to be a factor in explaining the differences in the numbers.
Barnes also said that the various cities also saw peaks and valleys within the year. For example, he said, even though Camden’s gun killing went down in 2020, there was one six-week span during which the city had about a dozen homicides. Spikes like that usually stem from local flash points, like a cycle of retaliation between gangs battling for drug turf, criminal justice experts said.
The Big Five cities regularly account for the majority of homicides in New Jersey — more than 60% of the shooting deaths in 2019 and 2020. Here’s a breakdown of the changes in their shooting numbers for those two years from the State Police data:
- Camden’s shooting incidents went up by 3% to 106, its number of total shooting victims decreased by seven percent to 120 and shooting fatalities went down by 6% to 17.
- Jersey City’s shooting incidents went up by 55% to 82, its number of total shooting victims increased by 22 percent to 93 and shooting fatalities went up by 180% to 14.
- Newark’s shooting incidents went up by 22% to 258, its number of total shooting victims increased by 21 percent to 326 and shooting fatalities went up by 4% to 50.
- Paterson’s shooting incidents went up by 29% to 116, its number of total shooting victims increased by 33 percent to 163 and shooting fatalities went up by 53% to 23.
- Trenton’s shooting incidents went up by 48% to 117, its number of total shooting victims increased by 41% to 154 and shooting fatalities went up by 177% to 36.
The Rev. Kenneth Clayton, president of the Greater Paterson NAACP and pastor of St. Luke’s Baptist Church in the city’s 4th Ward, said he has discussed the crime surge with clergy members from other New Jersey cities.
“They say what’s happening in their cities is scary,” Clayton said.
The pastor said for violent crime in New Jersey’s urban area are complex, including social problem as well as law enforcement issues.
“It’s easy to blame the police and the politicians,” Clayton said. “But I don’t think all the responsibility rests with them.”
‘It’s about unity policing.’
In Camden police department spokesman Dan Keashan attributed the city’s reduction in shooting victims to the bonds he said have been built between its residents and cops through activities like food-distribution events and barbecues.
“The biggest assert we have in fighting crime is the community itself,” said Keashan. “It’s more than just community policing. It’s about unity policing.”
In 2020, Camden had a 91% clearance rate for solving its homicides, Keashan said. In comparison, Paterson’s homicide clearance rate last year was 30%, a sharp drop from the 58% mark hit in 2019.
Keashan also said Camden’s 2020 shooting statistics were part of an ongoing declined that started after the city endured a 67-homicide record in 2012.
Newark also has seen a sustained drop in killings. From 2012 through 2016, Newark averaged more than 100 homicides per year. In 2019, the city had 48 shooting fatalities and in 2020 that number was 50, according to the State Police data.
Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose attributed the drop in homicides to a police strategy that focused on violent crimes, rather than quality of life complaints.
“We identified the worst of the worst,” Ambrose said.
As a result, Ambrose said, Newark police have confiscated between 450 and 500 guns per year. Also, over the past three years, Newark police have used their street intelligence to “interrupt” 147 shootings.
How do you interrupt a shooting? Ambrose said detectives would get information from their contacts about impending acts of violent, like word that one gang might be targeting one of their rivals, and take steps to prevent the shooting.
In some cases, that might involve warning the would-be victim, he said. If the word was that an attack would happen at a particular location, the department would station marked police units at the scene as deterrence, the director added. If police knew the name of the would-be triggerman, they could check if he had pending warrants and get him off the streets with an arrest.
Ambrose said fighting crime takes long-term commitment.
“You can’t do it in one year,” he said. “It’s a constant thing. You need to relentlessly follow up every day.”
Joe Malinconico is editor of Paterson Press. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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