Two weeks ago, Garry McCarthy, director of the Newark Police Department, was attending a monthly meeting in the city's South Ward when it dawned on him that already halfway through March, there had yet to be a recorded murder.
"I told them that we can call this 'Murder Free March,'" McCarthy said, "and they were like, 'Shhh. ... You're going to jinx it."
The jinx, however, never kicked in and for the first time in more than 40 years, Newark, once considered one of the most dangerous cities in the country, went a calendar month without a single murder.
"We're not talking about February that has 28 days," quipped McCarthy. "March is a legitimate month."
In McCarthy's eyes, the month does not reflect a serendipitous streak in which bad guys either ran out of bullets or needed work on their marksmanship. The month represents a game change.
There were eight murders in Newark in the first quarter of 2008. This year, the number was up slightly to 10. But in the four years since McCarthy took the reins, he said, the city has seen a 58 percent drop in murders, a 68 percent decline in shootings and a 61 percent reduction in shooting victims.
Back in 2008, from March through April, Newark went 43 days without a murder, but that stretched over parts of two months - not a full calendar month.
"This is the result of changing the culture here," he said. "There's a
huge difference in responding to crimes and working to prevent a crime from occurring."
In 2006, McCarthy was wooed to Newark by Mayor Corey Booker because of his work as deputy commissioner under New York City Police Chief Bill Bratton. Bratton and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani were credited with drastically improving New York City's crime rate.
McCarthy worked on Bratton's Compstat initiative, a revolutionary
business-management approach to crime prevention that has been described by the Police Foundation as a "strategic control system developed to gather and disseminate information on crime problems and to track efforts to deal with them." After New York's success, Compstat has been spreading nationwide.
McCarthy arrived in Newark in October 2006, and immediately saw glaring problems in the culture. Most police officers held banker's hours, he said, with 60 percent of the agency working 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. Gang-related crimes often occur on Saturdays, and the drug unit had that day off.
"Let's just say that stopped quickly," he said.
He's as unapologetic as a seasoned general and positions his troops where they can strike fast and hard. His first goals were to rein in drugs and to take violent criminals named in outstanding warrants off the streets. It's McCarthy's belief that the drug trade translates directly to an area's crime rate.
"Where there's drugs there's crime," he said.
He's gotten strong support from the mayor. Booker said he places a high premium on crime reduction. The city installed new surveillance cameras, increased police foot patrol and began offering thousands for anonymous tips about illegal guns.
"There's never one thing to point to," Booker told CNN. "It's police,
neighborhood groups and technology that play a huge role."
Booker noted that it took six years for New York City to realize its
success, and Newark is now in just its fourth year under McCarthy.
"It begins with the heroism of our police on the ground, making a
difference," he said. "We're already seeing the results."
Newark police recorded 77 homicides in 2009, according to statistics released in January of this year. While the figure was up from 67 in 2008, it was down from the 99 killings recorded in 2007 and 107 in 2006, the year Booker took office.
Aside from cities like Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Gary, Indiana,
crime has been dropping in the United States for more than a decade, said Todd Clear, the dean of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. The trend in Newark, however, is still noteworthy, he said.
"The police deserve a lot of credit, but the city as a whole worked hard on reducing crime," Clear said. "After-school programs and community centers all play a role in a city's crime rates."
Clear acknowledged McCarthy's role in transforming the city's police. "It's very difficult to change a police department from the top down, but it seems to be working," he said.
The last murder in Newark occurred on February 28, when Rodney Johnson died after suffering a gunshot wound to his chest, said the Essex County Prosecutor's Office. No arrests have been made.
Asked about any April predictions, McCarthy said, "We're nine hours in; I'm going to hold off for now."