Before sunrise, police tightened their bulletproof vests to their chests as they spread through Camden to take down two violent heroin-dealing gangs. For some officers, the raid Wednesday morning was the start of a grueling day and a half that found them struggling to keep up during a crime spree that claimed the lives of three people and left five others in the city wounded.
"We’re under siege," said Lt. Frank Falco of the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, who was among 250 state and local law enforcement officers involved in Wednesday morning’s arrests. Authorities charged 41 suspected drug dealers, capping a nine-month investigation into the Neto and Latin Kings gangs that police say worked in the city’s Lanning Square section.
But celebration of the arrests — which had law enforcement processing paperwork into the evening — didn’t last long. By sunset, officers were called to Cooper University Hospital, where a Pennsauken man had been taken after he was shot in the Camden. It was the first of seven shootings — two fatal — in as many hours, followed by another deadly shooting Thursday afternoon. Within one week, five people had been killed in the city.
"My guys are going from job to job," Falco said.
Sgt. Eric Rios of the Prosecutor’s Office was among the investigators who were up at sunrise for the drug raid. He was then called to a homicide at 10:15 p.m., and another shortly after midnight. At the second one, family members became emotionally charged and officers had to restrain them as the victim’s body lay in the street for hours while authorities waited for a medical examiner investigator who was working on the earlier homicide.
Crime-scene investigators hurried from one scene to the next and those who reach out to victims could barely keep up.
"We’re all stretched in a lot of different directions," said Linda Burkett, the victim-assistance witness coordinator for the Prosecutor’s Office. "It’s a matter of wearing roller skates and moving as fast as we can."
Even in Camden, for years identified as one of the most violent and impoverished cities in the nation, it was a bad few days for a police force stretched to the limit. So far this year, there have been 23 homicides in the city, compared with 20 at this time last year.
About 18 months ago, budget cuts slashed the Police Department from 370 officers to 200. Most have been rehired, but attrition, sick leave, and pending retirements have left the department with 235 active officers, Chief Scott Thomson said. Officers are working double shifts and on their days off.
"Under normal circumstances, we’re spread thin — we’re anorexic," Thomson said. "We have 77,000 residents depending on us to be there when we need to be there. And if that means working 16-hour days and working our days off, that’s what we are going to do."
Falco believes criminals are taking advantage of depleted resources, but he agreed with Thomson that the job would get done.
"No matter how tired we are, no matter how overworked we are, we are still going to be out there," Falco said. The percentage of murders solved, which had been nearing 50 percent, has dropped recently. The state police has officers patrolling the city and increases its support with surges, Thomson said.
The chief said he worried for the safety of his officers working under stress.
"I have grave concerns," Thomson said. "We have been working like this for over a year now."
Community activist Mangaliso Davis grew up in Lanning Square and now lives in North Camden near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. He’s worried the violence will get worse as summer arrives, school ends, and there are more teenagers on the street with guns.
Poverty, he said, feeds the violence as those with criminal records and few skills cannot find jobs and are easily recruited by gangs.
"It’s a perfect situation for drug dealers because they can recruit people for $125 to act as lookouts," Davis said. They spot an officer and the drug dealers move a block over. Police run from block to block, but can’t keep ahead of the drugs, he said.
"People are concerned and they don’t feel safe," Davis said. "There is a turf battle going on and retaliation. They’re fighting over these drug corners."
Camden Churches Organized for People, a community outreach group, sponsored a march through Camden on Friday evening to dramatize the need to promote peace and stop violence. On Saturday, it has scheduled a public workshop to which experts in violence-reduction initiatives from across the country have been invited.
Falco said investigators were trying to determine whether any of the recent shootings were related, or were a response to Wednesday’s arrests, which may have left some battling for drug corners in Lanning Square.
Sgt. Patricia Taulane of the Prosecutor’s Office was among those serving warrants on drug suspects early Wednesday. Thursday afternoon, she was back in the same neighborhood. At 4:30, police were called to Roberts and Royden Streets, where Kishaun Burks, 23, had been found with multiple gunshot wounds. He died shortly afterward.
Things could get worse, Falco said Friday.
"You can’t predict when two drug gangs are going to war," Falco said. "There’s no break."