CAMDEN, N.J. -- On a cold autumn night, Darran Johnson, 22, stands by the police tape strung between two trees in the housing complex where he lives with his mom and siblings. On a walkway 20 feet away, a middle-aged man lies dead, shot in the throat and head, sprawled on his back beside a battered 10-speed bicycle. His face is masked in blood that gleams bright red in the crime scene photographer's flash.
Johnson watches tight-lipped as investigators comb the grass for shell casings. "Kids play out here. Average people live here," he says. "I'm shaking. It's getting too close."
Gunfire rings out often in the neighborhood, he says, a regular reminder of the crime wave that has this city of 77,000 on pace to double its homicides in just three years, and has already shattered a nearly 20-year record for killings. With 59 homicides so far this year, the murder rate is on par with levels seen in Haiti in the chaotic aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
"A bullet has no name. If somebody shoots and I'm walking, I could be hit," Johnson says. "People are afraid right now. You can see it in their faces."
The crime surge coincides with new census data identifying Camden, long battered by vanishing industry, as the most impoverished city in the U.S., with 42 percent of residents under the poverty line, and an average family income of $21,191. If trends persist, Camden may soon hold the grim title of both the country's poorest and most dangerous city.
As residents decry the violence, local leaders are readying a radical plan that they call the only practical solution at hand to calm the streets: the dismantling of the Camden Police Department and the outsourcing of policing to a new, cheaper force run by the county government, to be called the Camden Metro Division.
BY JOHN RUDOLF