CAMDEN, New Jersey — Like she does every year, Sister Helen Cole spent the last days of December overseeing a vigil for each person slain in Camden. For 2014, she lit 32 candles for 32 victims.
In an impoverished city of 77,000, that represents an astounding homicide rate — about nine times the national average. But in Camden, a place with a long history of violence, it represents progress. There were 54 homicides in 2013 and a record 67 the year before.
The 2014 victims ranged in age from 2 months to 71 years old — and nearly all were killed with guns. Six of the killings came within eight days in November.
The overall violent crime rate was down about 20 percent on the year, according to the police department's preliminary data.
The crime rate always fluctuates, but this time the improvements are getting major attention because of the circumstances. The city's old police department was dissolved in 2013 and replaced with a force run by the county government. The change also brought the end of collective bargaining agreements that officials said were too expensive.
With lower costs per officer, the new force is bigger, allowing for more beat-driven police work. That marked a big change: Deep layoffs in 2011 due to budget cuts had left officers responding mostly to emergency calls rather than doing preventative policing.
Officers are now back to walking beats and, they point out, handing out ice cream in the summer and warm pretzels in the winter.
"Street corners that were once overrun by thugs who flagrantly operated with impunity are now the scene of pickup football games with the cop who walks the beat," said Chief Scott Thomson, who led the city force before taking the helm of the county police.
Cole, who lives in North Camden, said the open-air drug markets in her neighborhood have vanished, as have the people walking the streets in search of drugs.
"It feels like a normal neighborhood," said Cole, who did not expect the number of murders to fall so fast when more police were added.
Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican considering a 2016 presidential run, and the Democratic officials who run Camden and Camden County all have stakes in its success. Christie visited Camden regularly in 2014, always heralding the drop in crime.
There's another impact of the policing change. Because a city department no longer patrols Camden — even though the county police force is responsible for only the city, not the other areas of Camden County — Camden will not be included in the rankings of most dangerous cities to be released in early 2015 by CQ Press.
For years, Camden has ranked among the most dangerous places and officials in the city have questioned the methodology of the reports.
Chief Thomson agrees that more progress must be done to make the people in the city feel safer.
Among the mourners at a vigil on Tuesday was Carmen Marquez, whose 39-year-old husband, Kenny Moultrie, was killed on Feb. 17.
A stranger came into their apartment, she said, killed her husband and shot her 12-year-old son as he left. The boy survived. No one has been arrested.
Marquez has since moved to the suburbs, and she said all she hears about from people living in Camden is who's been shot.
"I really think it didn't get any better," she said.
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