By Samantha Henry and David Porter
NEWARK, N.J. Carjacking, a scourge in New Jersey's largest city and elsewhere in the 1990s, reappeared swiftly, and with a vengeance, in 2010.
This time, though, it seemed reckless, more indiscriminate. Victims accosted in broad daylight included a mother dropping her child at day care and a person attending a funeral. Two days after a Christmastime blizzard, a snowplow driver's rig was taken.
So local, state and federal officials decided to work together, and in an age of shrinking resources, had to create a new model to fight crime. The result: They significantly reduced the crime wave in a short period of time, representing a new level of interagency cooperation they hope to replicate.
Officials announced Monday that 42 people have been charged, several under federal statutes that could carry sentences of decades in prison.
The announcement comes as Newark prepares to host the NCAA basketball tournament for the first time. City officials said an extensive security plan including uniformed and plainclothes officers will provide a safe environment for this weekend's East Region finals.
"If all the data we have on arena-related incidences is any indication, I might need to be more worried about somebody getting drunk and punching somebody," Mayor Cory Booker said last week. "But we're taking every precaution."
Newark has long been one of the most violent and poorest cities in New Jersey. Its violent crime rate fell dramatically in 2008 and 2009, but has inched upward in the past two years.
Carjackings statewide declined for most of the past decade, then began creeping up in 2008. But the spike in Essex County in 2010 was as unprecedented as it was startling: 69 in December alone, mostly in Newark, which finished the year with 288. That represented a 70 percent increase over 2009.
One victim, George Amponsah, who works as a parking lot attendant, was standing in front of a Newark used car dealership on Dec. 6, admiring the BMW he had just bought, when a Jeep sped up behind him and a man jumped out, pressed a gun to Amponsah's neck and demanded his keys.
"I said, 'Oh my god!' I put my hands up, and I backed away," Amponsah said recently, describing how he watched the SUV he'd saved for for four years speed away.
The series of carjackings made national headlines, threatened to undermine Newark's efforts to counter negative perceptions and even caused a company that was considering moving to Newark to reconsider, Booker said. He agonized over the situation.
"It really created an atmosphere where people felt that any of us could be a victim, and that was really troubling," he said.
On the same day that Amponsah's car was stolen, law enforcement officials met to discuss how to combat the sudden crime wave.
Unlike previous carjackings where thieves would strip vehicles for parts or sell them out of state, the recent wave perplexed law enforcement officials because almost all appeared to be done by thrill-seeking young men who would steal the cars for a few hours, drive them around and then abandon them.
In the past, local police would take the lead in investigating a carjacking and request help as needed from neighboring towns.
This time, law enforcement officials realized they had to get out in front of the problem, at a time when the city had just laid off more than 150 police officers because of budget cuts.
State police contributed computerized predictive analysis that mapped possible future carjackings. A National Guard helicopter was offered for aerial support. Word of any carjacking was immediately dispatched to surrounding municipalities for quicker, more coordinated responses.
But at first, the wave continued.
U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman and Michael Ward, head of the FBI in Newark, widened the effort to include federal agencies that don't normally focus on crimes like carjacking. The agencies agreed to lean on informants or investigation targets who might have relevant information.
The FBI provided surveillance support, both electronic and with agents on the ground. Newark sent out its best police officers in teams to flood past and anticipated carjacking sites.
The results were striking: Three groups believed to be responsible for the bulk of the crimes were apprehended by January. By February, the number of carjackings in Essex County had fallen to nine. Officials agree the interagency cooperation may be a model in future investigations.
"I've never seen this type of collaboration in my 30 years of police work," said Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy.
He and others stress that while the problem has not gone away, it has decreased dramatically.
Now, law enforcement officials who participated in the coalition are looking at ways to use the model on other crime problems, in Newark and elsewhere.
"We're all strapped for resources, and as a result, we all have to play in the sandbox," McCarthy said. "It's at the point where we're going to do less, but we're going to do it better, and we're going to have a bigger impact on what we're trying to do. I really think that now that's what's normal, not only here in Newark, but across the country."
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