6 murders in a week: How Newark is responding to summer homicide surge

By Vernal Coleman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on August 31, 2015

Members of the Newark Police Department, the Essex County Homicide Task Force and other law enforcement agencies investigate a shooting homicide on South 11th Street in Newark Wednesday evening. Wednesday August 19, 2015.

 

NEWARK — Six killings in as many days last week left Newark city officials searching for a response. To help curb the rising death toll, Newark Police Department Director Eugene Venable emptied the cupboard, reassigning over 100 administrative department officers from desk to street duty.

Despite the killings, Venable and other city officials vouch for Newark as a safe city. With the exception of shootings and rape, overall crime is down, Venable said in a Aug. 21 interview with NJ Advance Media. And the decision to temporarily reassign administrative officers was less about fighting crime than combating the perception that violent crime is on the rise in the state's largest city, he said.

"When people hear that there were so many shootings in such a short amount of time, they start being fearful," Venable said. "The overall goal is that we want people to feel safe and know that crime is not out of control in Newark."

Recent crime statistics would seem to back him up. The city's overall crime complaint total, which includes robbery, aggravated assault and auto-theft, is eight percent lower than the 2014 year-to-date total, according to an Aug. 16 internal summary obtained by NJ Advance Media.

But the statistics reflect only the crime that's actually reported, said James Stewart, president of the Newark Fraternal Order of Police. "The cops in the street know crime isn't down," he said. "The reality is there are not enough cops to respond to the calls for services, and those people don't wait around forever. If no report is taken, nothing gets added to the statistics."

What the department's internal stats do include, however, are homicides. Six people were killed last week in a surge of fatal shootings and other homicides, five of them in a span of roughly 36 hours.

The killings shot Newark's 2015 homicide total to 59, pulling the city even with its 2014 year-to-date total. Fatal shootings recorded in the days since again forced the total upward. As of August 29, the total stood at 62, according to Anthony Ambrose, Essex County Prosecutor's Office Chief of Detectives.

Meanwhile, shootings have surged since the year's first quarter. According to the summary, there were 203 shooting incidents in Newark as of Aug. 23. At the same point in 2014, the city recorded just 163.

The number of persons injured in shootings has spiked, as well. As of Aug. 23, 249 people had been injured by a gunshot in Newark, a 30 percent increase over the total at that the same point in 2014.

Newark is not alone in experiencing an uptick in street-level violence. Several major U.S. cities saw a dramatic surge in homicides during the first half of 2015. According to a USA Today report, the murder total jumped by 33% or more in Baltimore, New Orleans and St. Louis during the first half of the year.

Eric Piza, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who performed crime analysis for Newark police between 2007 and 2012, said that Newark by comparison is faring relatively well for a city facing significant police shortages.

"Still, six homicides in a week is unacceptable in any city," he said.

THE CITY RESPONDS

When Newark Mayor Ras Baraka took the stage at a city anti-violence rally on Aug. 8, he urged the residents in attendance to take charge of their neighborhoods.

In a fiery speech, Baraka called on residents to form block watch groups and report crimes to police. Only with the public's help can Newark turn the page on its reputation as one of the state's most violent cities, the message went.

For a brief period it seemed to take. In the 10 days following the rally, zero homicides were reported in the city.

The respite didn't last. In an effort to stop the bleeding, Venable reassigned 115 police officers out of their administrative posts and onto patrol duty.


RELATED: Death of Pennsylvania man first since police reassignment


"Whenever you have more than one in such a short period of time, it's a crisis situation," Venable said. "And we needed to respond."

The offices of Interim Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray and the New Jersey state police have done the same, agreeing to continue to bolster the department's thinned ranks by patrolling the city's violence-prone neighborhoods.

The administrative officers will be posted throughout the city, though most will be assigned to the city's south and west wards, Venable said. The reassigned administrative officers will remain on street duty through the end of September at least, he added.

Venable said he's not concerned that some of the reassigned officers may be rusty. All administrative staffers in the department spend one day per work-week on patrol, he said. "They're used to street duty."

But whether the targeted patrols can work in the long term remains an open question.

For Prof. Eric Piza, the success of an enhanced patrol initiative like the one NPD is undertaking depends on the strategy that directs it.

"Research has also shown us that just throwing officers out on the streets without providing them targets is not the most efficient way to do something," he said. "The correct question to ask is what is an agency doing with the officers they have. So rather than just taking the officers from desk duty, it sounds like they are taking pains to understand what areas need the most attention."

VIOLENCE FUELED BY DRUG TRADE

In the wake of the shootings, Venable and other officials have offered varying explanations for the spike. At least one of the killings arose from a home-invasion robbery, while others can be tied to the city's local narcotics trade, officials said.

But what ties the most recent rash of homicides together is that they are not random, Venable said.

Anthony Ambrose, Essex County Prosecutor's Office Chief of Detectives, agreed.

"The majority of shootings and homicides in Newark are committed by people who have beefs with other people, and what fuels that is the drug trade," he said.

The victims killed is less than week are:

  • Andre Singh, 32, was shot to death in a Sanford Avenue home during a home invasion-style robbery, authorities said.
  • Early Wednesday morning, Dashir Donaldson, 28, of Irvington was gunned down in the 200 block of Ridgewood Avenue, authorities said.
  • George L. Cuevas, 34, of Newark, was stabbed to death Wednesday afternoon after he allegedly attempted to rob a Van Buren Street apartment residence in the city's Ironbound district, authorities said.
  • Later that evening, Michael Dantzler, 53, of Newark was fatally shot during a dispute while standing in the driveway of a home in the 200 block of South 11th Street, officials said.
  • Early Thursday, Quadrique Barner was found dead of multiple gunshot wounds near Ivy Hill Park, officials said.
  • Late in the week, livery cab driver Rodrigo Berru was pronounced dead after his body was discovered in the 300 block of Frelinghuysen Avenue. He was still on duty when the shooting occurred, officials said.

An investigation by the Essex County Prosecutor's Office Homicide Task Force into all six incidents is ongoing, department spokeswoman Katherine Carter said.

On Friday, authorities confirmed that three men were charged in Singh's killing. No arrests have been made in the other homicides, and there was no indication that the incidents were related, she added.

LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES PARTNER UP

Since the spike in shootings, curbing crime in Newark has become a collaborative effort. In addition to the 110-plus administrative Newark police officers reassigned to street duty, Ambrose said 26 Essex County Prosecutor's Officers have since the start of August joined NPD officers for joint weekly patrols of crime hot spots throughout Newark.

That's in addition to the 30 detectives from the county's inter-agency homicide task force conducting investigations throughout Essex County.

In addition, dozens of state troopers are also assisting Newark police in crime-fighting efforts across the city. The department has committed up to eight uniformed troopers to patrol Newark two days per week, said NJSP superintendent Col. Rick Fuentes.

"We think that gives the Newark Police Department another level of support until they can get their full compliment of officers," Fuentes said.

Prior to the spike in shootings, a compliment of state troopers was taken off the streets of the city in order to focus on more intelligence-based investigations.

But concern over the uptick led to a change in strategy, Ambrose said. Mayor Ras Baraka announced the enhanced patrols at a news conference earlier this month, where he called for the state's aid in bolstering the police department's thinning ranks by re-accrediting the city's police academy.

Officials now say the surge in police visibility is working. In the areas designated by Newark police for the enhanced patrols, there has been a reduction in crime, Ambrose said. And none of last week's homicides occurred in those areas, he added.

As for last week's spike in homicides, Ambrose said that there are always peaks and valleys every summer. "We make plans prior to each summer to try and prevent increases, and crime would be worse if we didn't," he said. "In my 30 years in law enforcement, something like this happens every year."

Still, evident among the city's elected and police officials is the feeling that the enhanced patrols are not a permanent solution.

On Aug. 28, Jesus Santi, 59, of Chester, Pennsylvania was shot to death 300 block of North 12th Street. It was the first recorded homicide in Newark since the reassignment of the city's administrative police officers. 

The next day, two men -- Condell Walker, 42, and Steven Watkins, 36 -- were killed into two apparently unrelated daytime shootings in the city.

"We know it's not going to stop the shootings in the long term, but we're attacking the problem," said West Ward City Councilman Joe McCallum, who said he's in full support of the police reassignments.

"We can't just sit on our hands."

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment