NEWARK, NJ — A wave of shootings and violence this summer in major cities across the United States is washing over Newark, leaving city officials and community arbitrators wringing their hands as COVID-19’s social fallout looms large. 

At least 18 shootings and two stabbings occurred between July 20 to August 3, according to officials from Newark Police Department and Essex County Prosecutor's Office. The result has been an increase of five more homicides in July 2020 compared to last year, Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose told TAPinto Newark. 

One incident on August 2 injured a 10-year-old girl on the 200 block of 6th Avenue during daylight hours, raising concerns about public safety just nine months after Newark touted its accomplishments in decreasing crime overall by 13% and homicides by 26% in 2019. 

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“While homicides have been down in Newark for the past four years, this uptick in violence that our city and nation is experiencing during this precarious time will not be tolerated and must be stopped,” Mayor Ras Baraka said in a statement on Monday. “The Newark Police Division is meeting with state and federal partners today to discuss how we can band together to end this epidemic.”
 
On Friday, Ambrose, NPD Chief Darnell Henry and captains from each precinct will convene for a remote town hall with the community. While overall violent crime is down 16% in 2020 and homicides are down 20%, the sudden onslaught of bullets warns of the fragility of the social milieu at this moment in history. 


 
The surge in violence is not unique to Newark: Chicago has seen 150 more gun deaths compared to last summer and 760 more shootings, according to police data. The Wall Street Journal released an analysis showing double-digit increases in 36 out of 50 of large U.S. cities. 
 
Here in Newark, those who work to address and mitigate conflict in the city’s most affected neighborhoods say the impetus for the rise in violence is obvious. 
 
“It’s not unusual during the summertime for violence to have an uptick, that's true for most major cities,” said Aqueela Sherills, director of the Newark Community Street Team, a community-based violence reduction group. “We know that the pandemic is exacerbating violence in the community.”


 
The culmination of social isolation, job loss, and trauma from illness and loss of loved ones to COVID-19 is especially crippling for the Black American population in areas like Newark’s South and West wards, where much of the violence is occurring, Sherrils said. 
 
“I think that what we’re seeing is a complicated set of circumstances that really speaks to the lack of public health and public safety infrastructure we have in order to respond to this pandemic,” he said. 
 
Sherills said that in terms of addressing the current escalation, NCST, which is part of the city’s public safety strategy, will continue staying the course with its boots-on-the-ground mission. Sherills’ team leverages its relationship with the police through the sharing of intelligence, which the Street Team then uses to prevent violence. 
 
Baraka redirected roughly $12 million of the Police Division's budget into an Office of Violence Prevention, which will fund and centralize the city’s social services. But in the South Ward, some smaller, independent community groups focused on youth and families say their programs are being lost to COVID-19, resulting in a loss of structure for young people. 
 
Shadee Dukes, a former member of NCST and the founder of the nonprofit Young and Established, has negotiated several truces in different neighborhood groups and helped establish Weequahic Park as a safe zone from violence. His anti-violence model operates by gathering groups of people together, essentially bringing his work with the community to a halt under COVID-19.
 
He said the pandemic has made it all the more difficult for people in need to reach out for help and decimated smaller organizations based directly in the city’s roughest neighborhoods. 
 
“We’re not physically able to mobilize ourselves, and that’s the biggest way we make an impact,” Dukes said. “It makes it more challenging to filter information around, get people the services they need. I don’t see the streets of Newark going toward a positive place right now, I see it more as a free fall.”
 
Sports, the arts, summer camps and other positive social activities for youth and families are on an indefinite hiatus due to COVID-19, creating a funding impact that will see resources lost for good. Jamal Littles, assistant director of the Weequahic High School Band, said his already strained music program will have all the more trouble fundraising this year. 
 
He’s unsure of when, or under what circumstances, his students will be allowed to meet and practice. In his experience as an advocate for youth, young people between the ages of 14 and 21 are the most likely to get involved in violent crime without some kind of enrichment. 

“Without these programs, their surroundings and everything that they see and hear every day, from the sirens to the gunshots and killings, it puts them in survival mode,” he said. “They don’t have the pleasure of not worrying about getting shot at. When you have programs, that’s their peace. It inspires them to want more.” 
 
This story was made possible by a grant from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.