By David Porter
NEWARK, N.J. — They ranged in age from 24 to 70 and are linked solely by the way their lives ended, in gunfire on Newark's streets.
Jose Arroyo and Jamal Hedamy, innocent bystanders killed in separate shootings. James Conn, targeted and shot in the street at an hour when most people were arriving home from work or sitting down to dinner.
The killings over the long Easter weekend brought Newark's murder total to 28 in 2011, a 65 percent increase over the 17 killed in the same period a year ago and double the number for the first four months of 2009, according to statistics from the county prosecutor's office.
The increase has come after much-publicized layoffs that cut nearly 15 percent of the police force at the end of last year, creating an "I-told-you-so" moment for many observers inside and outside the law enforcement community.
It's a dilemma faced by cities and towns across the country as they struggle to provide public safety while budget gaps force them to trim staff.
Not everyone is convinced there is a direct link.
"No one can say with any certainty whether the layoffs or the lead-up to the layoffs are in and of themselves the cause of what's going on now," said Wayne Fisher, a former Newark police officer who heads the Police Institute at Rutgers University's School of Criminal Justice. "No one can say they had absolutely nothing to do with it, but the hard question is to determine how much."
In Newark, the crime surge has continued a disheartening trend for a city of 280,000 that topped 100 murders in 2006 but saw that number fall by more than 30 percent by the end of 2008. The number has crept up in the last two years, despite a murder-free month last March, Newark's first since the mid-1960s.
Other violent crimes increased as well in the first quarter of 2011: Robberies and burglaries were up 11 and 8 percent, respectively, and thefts and auto thefts had each risen by more than 30 percent.
Camden, a city that frequently appears on national "most dangerous" lists, has experienced similar increases this year on the heels of police layoffs that cost 167 officers _ about half the department _ their jobs, though the city was able to hire back 50 of them last month. From Jan. 1 to mid-April, violent crime in the city was up 18 percent compared to 2010.
Yet a closer look at Newark's numbers highlights the difficulty in pinning down a correlation between layoffs and crime, particularly murder.
For instance, last year's 37-day murder-less stretch was bound to skew any comparisons to the same period this year. And last summer was one of the most murderous in Newark in decades, months before the police layoffs went into effect.
Acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray pointed out that two of Newark's murder victims this year died from injuries suffered in previous years, and three were the result of domestic violence incidents, typically among the hardest crimes to prevent.
"The causality is very hard to ferret out," said Sarah Waldeck, a Seton Hall University law professor who has studied the effects of policing strategies on crime rates. "Typically, police forces get decreased during bad economic times, and rising crime rates can be attributable to bad economic times."
Tulsa, Okla., may offer a prime example. Violent crime overall fell in 2010 _ and murders fell 16 percent _ in a year in which more than 100 police officers were laid off (most were rehired later in the year). But police attribute an 18 percent decrease in larcenies, for instance, to a different reporting procedure necessitated by the layoffs.
"Instead of responding to burglaries from vehicles or if someone steals your garden gnome, we asked people to file a report online and we'd follow up the best we could," said Officer Jason Willingham, a police spokesman. "We definitely heard an outcry from the community, and what we saw was a decrease in some of those crime areas."
In Newark, former Police Director Garry McCarthy _ recently named Chicago's acting police superintendent _ has been credited with introducing strategies that helped drive down shootings and violent crime.
Among them was the creation of a separate narcotics division and a fugitive apprehension team, as well as a focus on enforcing so-called "quality of life" laws like those against loitering and public drunkenness.
The recent layoffs have hampered such efforts and have reduced or eliminated programs that had put younger officers right into high-crime areas or in plainclothes street units, according to Newark Fraternal Order of Police vice president James Stewart Jr.
"Now, everybody has been put back on patrol," Stewart said, echoing Willingham's description of what Tulsa experienced. "It's all hands on deck in the radio cars, going from job to job to job. Now, if the guys on the corner see cops, they know they're not coming to bust them, they're just on their way to another job."
McCarthy pointed to a new initiative aimed at engaging directly with gang members, a program that has met with some success in Boston and Cincinnati, as a potentially positive step.
With warm weather already here and the memories of last summer's violence still fresh, Newark also is contemplating a partnership with state and federal law enforcement, similar to an effort that helped bust several carjacking rings earlier this year. Some of the key players in those groups were juveniles.
Community leaders in Newark say jobs and recreation opportunities, not more police, will make a difference.
"Yes, people are worried," said Earl Best, known in Newark as The Street Doctor. "There's nothing for these children to do. I don't know about more police, but if you don't have more recreation, open up some of these boys' and girls' clubs, give people jobs, we're going to continue to have a rising crime rate."
Mayor Cory Booker rejected a connection between the layoffs and the recent surge in violent crime and vowed to "take back the streets" this summer. He also urged residents to get involved.
"It's not just the police, all of us have a responsibility," he said. "Use our tip lines, be involved with young people, be a mentor. There are so many things each of us should be doing.
"These statistics we spout are real people and real people's lives," he said. "It's terrifying when someone gets hit, injured, or killed."
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press