If New Jersey, with 8.8 million people, had the same homicide rate as Camden, there would have been more than 7,500 slayings this year — 20 times the number the state normally has in a year.
The city, once a manufacturing center, has been the focus of statewide efforts to expand affordable housing offerings in the suburbs with the goal of deconcentrating poverty and to improve urban schools, partly by bringing their funding in line with suburban districts. The state also has used taxpayer money to help expand the universities and hospitals in the city in hopes of creating jobs and sparking private investment.
A group of activists this year planted a cross for every homicide victim in a new park in front of City Hall to raise awareness and as a call for politicians to act. In December, the state attorney general ran a gun buyback program that brought in more than 1,100 weapons — the most ever returned in such an effort in New Jersey.
Camden is a city full of churches and social service agencies that try from every angle to make life better.
Cole is proud of young people she's worked with who have become nurses and despairs of how parents in the city can raise one child who can be a model citizen and another a killer.
“How can you say it's because of parenting when the streets are calling their kid's names?” she asked.
She also believes that the availability of guns desensitizes people and turns arguments into killings. “What ever happened to punching someone in the nose?” she asked, before noting that two of the 2012 victims died after being punched.
Two years ago, about half the city's police department was laid off amid a budget crisis. Though officers have been hired back since, Cole said the layoffs changed things.
Before, she said, there were lawless people in the city. Now, criminals are fearless. Instead of hiding drug sales in houses or porches, she said, “they're right on the corner. They're coming up to my car, your car.”
The city is in the process of dismantling its police force, which is to be replaced by a new county-run force. It's a change derided by police union officials, but authorities say it will put more officers on the street in 2013.