Camden did rehire some of the lost officers with federal and state grants, but in December city officials pleaded with the state to send in the National Guard to help quell violence.
"We're currently a city under siege," Frank Moran, president of the city council, said at a press conference that month, calling on the mayor to declare a state of emergency. "We are under siege by criminals."
Flint, Mich., devastated by the spiraling decline of its once-thriving auto industry, also laid off police during the recession -- more than half of its force since 2008. The city, home to 102,000 people, has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, at 37 percent. Nearly a fifth of residents live in extreme poverty, which the federal government defines as an income threshold of $11,000 per year for a family of four.
In 2008, Flint had 265 sworn officers on the street. By early 2012, that number had fallen to 125. In that same period, homicides rose more than 60 percent.
Joshua Freeman, a Flint city councilman, is not sure that the layoffs directly caused homicides to spike, but says they clearly contributed to a growing sense of lawlessness. "I think that people in this city feel that there aren't any consequences for their actions, because the city doesn't have the resources to implement consequences," Freeman says.
BATTERED BY CUTS
Police cuts weren't as severe in Stockton as in Flint and Camden. The impact, however, appears equally dramatic.
In 2008, as Stockton rode the housing boom, the city's police department reached its highest staffing level ever, with more than 450 sworn officers. The city took a far more aggressive approach to policing its most troubled neighborhoods, according to James West, chief of the Stockton Unified School district's police department, which works closely with the Stockton Police Department.
"That allowed the police department to take back some of the neighborhoods that the gangs had controlled for years," West says. "There was great progress being made."
Three years later, staffing sunk by a quarter and officers that remained saw their pay and benefits slashed by more than 20 percent. Many senior officers retired or left to work in more affluent communities in the state. As staffing declined, community-oriented policing and aggressive anti-crime strategies disappeared.
"We had special units doing proactive things, going out into communities and talking with people," says Steve Leonesio, a senior officer with the Stockton Police Department and president of the city's police officers' association. "We have none of that anymore."
"Now we go in there if they call us, then we leave and go to the next place that calls us," he adds. "It's a Band-Aid effect."
The abrupt surge in killings in tandem with the drop in police staffing strongly indicated that the two were connected, says Blumstein, the Carnegie Mellon criminologist. "It clearly is suggesting that murders rose as a result of the decline in the police force."
Other researchers, however, questioned whether Stockton might have avoided the surge in homicide with an aggressive, community-based, anti-crime program, far less costly than hiring large numbers of officers.
According to Kennedy, the John Jay criminologist, Stockton successfully experimented with an anti-crime strategy in the late 1990s. The program used outreach and communication with gang members and violent offenders. That approach showed results, Kennedy says, but Stockton abandoned it after a leadership change at the police department -- not, he says, because of money.
“The real issue there is will. It’s not money. It’s not people,” Kennedy says. “It fell apart because they let it fall apart.”
Stockton police disagree, pointing to a gang-outreach program in the city called Peacemakers that is similar to Kennedy’s violence prevention strategy. "It's been a good five or six years that we've been doing this program," says Leonesio, a member of the Stockton Police Department's SWAT team. "Honestly, I really don't see it causing a huge impact on the crime."
The majority of Stockton's homicides in 2011 were gang-related shootings, according to local police, and the killings have spilled over into 2012. Among the most recent victims was Arturo Marquez Jr., 14, shot while fleeing gunfire at a party on the city's south side.
Cesar Mercado, 45, the boy’s soccer coach and a newly retired Stockton police officer, says Marquez was a good kid and a standout player with huge potential. “He probably shouldn’t have been at the house he was at,” he says. “It was just a bad side of town.”
Gang members from the city showed up, and shots rang out. Marquez took a bullet in the chest. “It’s devastated the whole family,” Mercado says. “It’s devastated the community.”
Mercado left the force in late February, just after Marquez’s funeral, and is now weighing job offers from departments elsewhere in California. He’d served for more than 20 years, including 13 years in narcotics and five on the gang squad, and thought he’d retire in Stockton.
But in 2011, the city reduced his pay and benefits by more than 25 percent, and with talk of bankruptcy in the air, more cuts seem likely.
“I’m leaving because of the instability that’s coming around the corner,” he says. “I need to keep feeding my family and paying my mortgage.”
The death of Marquez, his star player, did not play a role in his decision. “It was just bad timing,” he says.
Virginia Ortega, 33, also saw her life recently upended by crime.
Ortega lives in central Stockton, less than a quarter-mile from the police department headquarters and city hall. A single mother of five, she shares a three-bedroom apartment with more than a dozen family members, including her mother and grandmother. More than 40 percent of people in her neighborhood live below the federal poverty line, according to Census data.
Last summer, Ortega's boyfriend, Dave Lewis, 34, a mechanic, was shot to death while walking at night past a nearby convenience store. Police have made no arrests.
Lewis "was making good money," Ortega says, helping to put food on the table and taking care of her children. Now she depends on her grandmother's monthly Social Security check to make the rent.
Early one evening in late February, she visited the store and the grimy patch of concrete where Lewis was shot. Young men in baggy clothes and crooked baseball caps loitered outside.
The police have virtually abandoned regular patrols of the neighborhood, coming now only in response to a shooting or other serious assault, she says. "We don't have any protection," Ortega says. "Even when you walk to your car you have to be careful. They can pull a gun on you any time."
AN UNCERTAIN FORECAST
For communities like Stockton, it's hard to predict when the violence might abate.
“Crime forecasts have been notoriously incorrect,” says Barry Krisberg, director of research and policy at the Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. “Forecasting crime rates is like forecasting the Dow Jones.”
Violence has long been tied to deprivation, though is not closely linked to macroeconomic swings. The young men responsible for the lion’s share of violent crime, particularly gun violence, often come from households mired in desperate poverty and have little of value but their self-image, Blumstein says.
“They have nothing in the world. They have no opportunity. They have no jobs. All they have is ego. And anyone who insults their ego, they will avenge that, one way or another,” he says.