Mayor vows social changes as murders spike in New Jersey's largest city

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 04, 2014 10:34 AM

By Daniel Kelley

NEWARK, N.J. (Reuters) - At a time when murder rates in most U.S. cities are dropping, Newark's mayor has pledged to combat a spike in killings in New Jersey's largest city with a mix of tough enforcement and long-term social approaches.

After 11 separate shootings during the Thanksgiving weekend, Mayor Ras Baraka at a town hall meeting on Wednesday night told residents his administration wanted to help solve the deadly problem by tackling wider issues such as poverty, unemployment and low levels of education.

"We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem but we are going to arrest some people," Baraka said. "Some people are going to jail.”

The spate of violence, which left eight dead in the eight days, has put residents on edge in a city already accustomed to violence.

“I've been here all my life and I've never been afraid but I'm afraid now,” said Rayla Basknight, 67, a Newark resident.

Baraka, the city's fiery progressive mayor who took office in July, said his proposed initiatives would include job training for residents and summer jobs for teens.

Citing research that suggests even failing schools are safer for kids than the street, city officials also said they want to curb truancy and school drop outs. 

Efforts to stop loitering, Baraka said, should be met with the opening of recreation centers.

“If we want to get people off the street, we have to give them someplace to go,” Baraka said. 

The intractability of violence in Newark comes in the face of declining rates of crime nationally. Nationally, murders fell from a rate of nine per 100,000 residents in 1994, when 23,326 people were killed, to 4.5 per 100,000 in 2013, when 14,196 were killed, according to FBI statistics.

Despite reductions in other forms of violent crime such as robberies and carjackings, Newark saw 111 homicides in 2013, according to New Jersey statistics, the highest number since 1990, and has suffered 87 this year, city officials said.

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Many residents and officials blamed years of high unemployment.

"People are poor," said Willie Rowe, 48, who works with at-risk youth. 

But even amid the violence, there were signs of hope. Khalis Harris, 23, whose brother Jamil was gunned down Nov. 30, went to the town hall meeting to urge police to be more respectful toward young people. He said Newark had more to offer than its image of crime.

"Don't be afraid to come to Newark,” Harris said. “We have a beautiful town. Talk about us when we are doing something positive."

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Bill Trott)