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South Jersey

November 10, 1999
Azzolina calls Camden 'murder capital'


CAMDEN - Officials across the city ripped a state lawmaker Tuesday for labeling Camden too intimidating for tourists to be the permanent home of the battleship USS New Jersey.

Mayor Milton Milan said statements by Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, printed Tuesday in The New York Times, show Azzolina is misinformed about Camden.

City Council President Gwendolyn Faison and others also called Azzolina unfair for describing Camden as the "murder capital of the world." They noted the city's Waterfront, where the ship would be docked, is virtually crime-free.

Azzolina, chairman of the New Jersey Battleship Commission, which favors Bayonne over Camden for the ship's permanent berthing site, was quoted as saying, "As soon as you walk off the parking lot (from the Camden Waterfront), you're in the middle of the murder capital of the world."

"There's no basis for him to say that," Milan said. "It's totally untrue. The crime rate in the city not only has dropped, but is not the highest in the country. That's typical North Jersey talk. More than 1 million people come here every summer for shows (at the E- Centre) on the Waterfront without an incident."

In an interview with the Courier- Post Tuesday, Azzolina said, "Maybe I might have exaggerated a bit, but it is a crime capital of the United States."

Camden's per capita murder rate is the state's highest and among the nation's highest as well, although its crime rate has dropped dramatically in recent years. Reliable statistics on world homicide rates are difficult to come by.

A study released last year by Morgan Quitno Press, a publisher based in Lawrence, Kan., ranked Camden as the second most dangerous city in the United States based on 1997 crime statistics. But Camden officials argued that the report - in which only Gary, Ind., fared worse - was skewed because it didn't reflect recent improvements. Camden had 42 murders in 1997, compared to 30 in 1998. So far this year, there have been 20 homicides in the city.

Even in 1997, the city's murder rate was lower than at least two other cities - Gary and Richmond, Va. - according to an analysis by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Azzolina said he has been frustrated because U.S. Rep. James Saxton, R-N.J., a staunch supporter of Camden for the ship, has been "banging away at Bayonne."

"I thought it was time for me to take the gloves off. It's OK when they criticize, but not when I do it," he said.

Faison hammered Azzolina for insulting her city.

"But I'm not surprised," she said. "I guess Camden isn't supposed to be good enough for a battleship with historical importance."

Camden County Prosecutor Lee Solomon said he found it hard to believe Azzolina would make that kind of comment.

"It's important that before you speak on an issue that you have some familiarity with it," Solomon said. "Frankly, thanks to the efforts of the Camden City Police Department and law enforcement throughout the region, Camden has had one of the most successful anti-crime efforts of any city in the state during the past year, and has seen a significant reduction in criminal activity across the board. I would challenge anybody, including Joe, to point out an area in the state that is more secure than the Camden Waterfront."

Calling the Waterfront the safest place in Camden, community activist Frank Fulbrook criticized Azzolina as desperate.

"He knows he's losing, and one of the reasons is that tourists in Philadelphia will visit the Camden Waterfront, whereas tourists in Manhattan will not visit Bayonne," said Fulbrook, who in July 1998 helped persuade the Camden Empowerment Zone Corp. to contribute $1 million to efforts to bring the battleship to Camden.

Retired Navy Capt. David McGuigan, president of the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit, South Jersey-based group trying to get the ship for the Camden Waterfront, said, "The comments of Mr. Azzolina are unsubstantiated," adding, "There is tremendous police protection in that (Waterfront) area."

"I am horrified," said Joseph Balzano, director of the South Jersey Port Corp. in Camden. He is a member of both the battleship commission and the Home Port Alliance.

"I look at Camden as a kind and welcoming city," he said. "We all have problems, but it's not the murder capital of the world. It's ludicrous."

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