Is Camden Really America’s Most Dangerous City?

Maybe not. Here's why.

In this April 15, 2014 file photo, Camden County Metro police officers Lucas Murray, left, and Daniel Torres react to what they thought was a gunshot, but turned out to be a car backfiring, as they patrol a neighborhood in Camden, N.J.  The crime rate always fluctuates, but recent improvements in Camden 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. With lower costs per officer, the new force is bigger, allowing for more beat-driven police work and preventative policing. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

In this April 15, 2014 file photo, Camden County Metro police officers Lucas Murray, left, and Daniel Torres react to what they thought was a gunshot, but turned out to be a car backfiring, as they patrol a neighborhood in Camden, N.J. The crime rate always fluctuates, but recent improvements in Camden 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. With lower costs per officer, the new force is bigger, allowing for more beat-driven police work and preventative policing. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

Another year, another list ranking Camden as America’s most dangerous city. We’re used to it by now, right?

Maybe not. Camden officials are ready to push back against the latest ranking, this time from the NeighborhoodScout website. (Chester, also right next door to Philadelphia, ranked second on the list.)

“The worst days of Camden City are behind it,” says Louis Cappelli Jr., executive director of the Camden County Board of Freeholders.

Here’s why he might be right: The NeighborhoodScout website figured its rankings based on 2013 data, the most recent year for which comprehensive nationwide crime statistics are available. But the last two years have seen an overhaul in the way Camden is policed — and a corresponding drop in violent crime.

Back in October we reported this:

Earlier this month, ShotSpotter — which operates gunfire-detecting microphones throughout Camden, announced that the first half of 2014 saw a 50 percent reduction in the amount of gunfire it had detected in the city. That followed a New York Times report detailing a slew of statistics suggesting the city is safer: Shootings were down 43 percent, violent crime down 22 percent, and the response time by police to emergency calls down to 4.4 minutes — from more than an hour previously. Not too long ago, the city went 40 days without a homicide.

Those changes followed the dismantling of Camden’s city police force and the takeover of law enforcement by the Camden County Police Department, which in turn has implemented new technology (like the ShotSpotter system) and “community policing” techniques that give officers a weightier presence in the neighborhoods.

Perhaps as a result, the murder rate has dropped dramatically, by The South Jersey Times‘ calculations — from a record 67 homicides in 2012 to 58 in 2013 to a relatively paltry 33 at the end of 2014. The NeighborhoodScout ranking, though, hasn’t yet taken the 2014 numbers into account.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Cappelli said. “The 2014 numbers reflect a substantial decrease in all types of crime, including murder and violent crime. We just have to get the word out that the city is safe again for persons and businesses.”

One bit of proof: Camden officials today released the results of a survey of the city’s middle school and high school students showing that 62 percent and 56 percent of them, respectively, aren’t afraid to leave their schools and go outside. That doesn’t sound extraordinary, but the numbers were up from 20 and 21 percent, respectively.

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That’s not to say Camden might not still make the list if the rankings were recalculated with 2014 numbers. Nearly three dozen murders is still a hefty burden for a city the size of Camden, which has fewer than 80,000 residents. “Statistically, there should only be seven or eight murders for a city this size,” Sister Helen Cole, a longtime observer of the city’s violence, told the South Jersey Times at the end of 2014.

“We’re not at mission accomplished,” Cappelli acknowledged.

But, he added: “Camden City is a completely different city than it was at the beginning of 2013. … It’s moving in the right direction, for sure.”

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