US massacre triggers weapons surrender

Many residents of Camden, one of the most violent American cities, handed over their guns after Newtown school rampage.

Dozens of crosses are placed at Camden City Hall as the homicide rate surges [Steve Patrick Ercolani/Al Jazeera]

Camden, United States – Assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols poured into two churches in one of the most dangerous US cities, a day after 26 people were gunned down in the second-most deadly school shooting in American history.  

Responding to an amnesty offer in the violence-plagued city of Camden, New Jersey, 1,137 firearms were dropped off at the places of worship last weekend – with no questions asked by police.

At up to $250 per weapon, the state paid out about $110,000 to Camden residents. Last year, 57 guns were turned in during the city-sponsored buyback programme.

Many who handed over weapons said the Newtown, Connecticut massacre that left 20 children dead played a role in the decision. “A lot of people said they don’t want the guns around the house now,” state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa said.

Camden has struggled for years to deal with its own violent crime, and the “Cash for Guns” amnesty was one such attempt. With 66 murders recorded so far in 2012, Camden’s homicide rate is 20 times higher than the United States’ national average – ranking it among the most violent US cities. 

“That’s a murder rate higher than many Third World countries, countries involved in internal conflicts, like Somalia or Guatemala,” Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen told Al Jazeera.

“It’s the typical story of post-industrialisation, or de-industrialisation. Jobs leave, and with it comes a lot of crime.”

– Dan Keashen, Camden County spokesman

The story of Camden is also one of what happens to a once-thriving manufacturing centre when corporations move out, jobs disappear, and crime surges.

Census data released last month showed that Camden, a city of 77,000 people, is the poorest in the United States with a poverty rate of 42.5 percent.

Economic descent

Camden has suffered a slow decline since the New York Ship Building Company – previously the city’s largest employer – left in the 1960s. More than 50,000 jobs in the waterfront district were lost.

The city’s population has declined about 40 percent from the 1950 level of 120,000. It has no hotels or movie theatres, and just a handful of supermarkets.

Drug-dealing has become the main economic force here. 

“It’s the typical story of post-industrialisation, or de-industrialisation,” said Keashen. “Jobs leave, and with it comes a lot of crime.”

Other than the gun amnesty, the city has undertaken an unprecedented new approach to crime fighting: disbanding Camden’s police department and outsourcing the job to the privately run Camden Metro Division.

Joe Cordero, who retired from the New York Police Department in 2001 after more than two decades with the country’s largest police force, was contracted to assemble the new force.

Drug dealers are Cordero’s main target. He estimated there are more than 170 open-air drug markets within the city’s 23 square kilometres.

Cordero is pulling officers out from behind desks and putting them back on the street. He is organising a force of paid civilians to handle the administrative police work, as well as manning the city’s innovative “Eye in Sky” network of surveillance cameras. “The challenge is changing the culture of policing,” said Cordero. “A historically high crime rate over a very long period of time becomes a backdrop: the police get used to it, the public gets used to it.”

Camden police officers examine weapons turned in [AP]

The new cameras are armed with microphones that are able to pick up and pinpoint gunfire, enabling the immediate dispatch of officers. Cordero estimates a city savings of about $6m per year.

The current police budget sits at $65m under union-negotiated contracts. By civilianising administrative and non-violent crime fighting operations, the new force will add 130 more officers on the street for the same cost, Cordero said.

The union said there are about 230 police officers patrolling the street now, but that figure is disputed by some.

“A third of them don’t show up, and patrols are split between night shifts and day shifts, so we’re really only talking about a dozen officers on the ground at any given time in one of the world’s most violent cities,” said Bryan Morton, who heads the Concerned Citizens of North Camden group.

Community cooperation

Police union president John Williamson has been an outspoken critic of the move to privatise Camden’s police force.

Williamson said the new plan is no more than an attempt at union busting, arguing that employing lower-paid civilians with fewer benefits than police officers is a threat to public safety.

“Having civilians respond to non-violent crimes – well, sometimes by the time you arrive on the scene the crime has turned violent,” Nancy Webster, a spokeswoman for Williamson, said. 

Camden County spokesman Keashen disagreed that the move was intended to break the union. “The collective bargaining for the new department will be unionised, and base salaries will be higher than what guys get now.”

Morton has worked with the new department in order to strengthen ties in what has been a long-running and contentious relationship between police and the community.

“I grew up here and for most of us, the only reason we ever see the law is when something is wrong,” said Morton.

Having served jail time himself, Morton cited the lack of opportunity as a young man as the main reason for getting involved in crime.

“In Gaza right now, an entire generation of young people have no hope, no opportunities and are easy to recruit. It is no different here, there is little opportunity, no jobs, but there are drug jobs and it is easy to recruit,” he said.

Squinting as he adjusted his tweed fedora, Morton explained how he earned a Master’s degree in public policy and urban planning after serving his sentence.

“They’ll call out the name of every murdered soul this year … It seems like there are more each year.”

– Micah Khan, Camden resident

He said he hopes to change the culture of violence by serving as a liaison between the police and the community. As part of his role, he runs Little League baseball every summer in Pyne Point, an area known for drug-dealing and prostitution.

“There was one evening a man continued to drive his motorbike through the sandlot where we played, and he was clearly involved in drugs. I asked him to stop, and a few days later he returned with a gun and threatened me. This is what is happening. Good people are having to involve themselves with the criminal element.”

Now, said Morton, the new Metro force has told him if he needs patrols for the kids, its officers will be there.

Mourning the dead

Dozens of crosses with the names of those slain this year populate the manicured lawn of City Hall, as mourners and concerned citizens recently held a requiem.

The Sacred Heart Church, meanwhile, recently held its annual “Murder Mass”.

“They’ll call out the name of every murdered soul this year,” said Micah Khan, a Camden resident. “It seems like there are more each year.”

As US cities become increasingly cash-strapped and jobs disappear, Camden may be a grim example of things to come for other urban centres.

“Camden is the poster child of postindustrial decay,” American writer Chris Hedges wrote in a 2010 article titled “City of Ruins”.

“It stands as a warning of what huge pockets of the United States could turn into as we cement into place a permanent underclass of the unemployed, slash state and federal services in a desperate bid to cut massive deficits, watch cities and states go bankrupt and struggle to adjust to a stark neofeudalism, in which the working and middle classes are decimated.”

Source: Al Jazeera