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Schoolyard Murders Rattle Newark, N.J.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Just over a year ago, one of America's troubled cities got a new leader. Newark, New Jersey had a booming downtown but also desperately poor neighborhoods. Mayor Cory Booker symbolized his commitment to improve those neighborhoods by living in one of them.

Today, the city is still struggling with a high murder rate, and over the weekend, three college students were killed. They were shot - executed, really - in a schoolyard.

Mayor Booker joins us now on the phone from Newark. Mayor, good to talk with you again.

Mayor CORY BOOKER (Newark, New Jersey): Good morning.

INSKEEP: What is the latest the police have told you about the investigation?

Mayor BOOKER: Well, we've got some very encouraging leads and we're making some progress, so I'm very hopeful that we're going to capture the people responsible.

INSKEEP: No arrests yet to your knowledge?

Mayor BOOKER: No arrests yet. I've been working on it since late last night and no arrests.

INSKEEP: Are police telling you they think they know who did it?

Mayor BOOKER: You know, we don't want to say that right now. We're just letting folks know that we're making a lot of progress on the case. And I'm encouraged; I believe we're going to find the people.

INSKEEP: And Mayor, can you describe in a broader sense what is happening in your city? I understand that although crime overall is down, the murder rate has remained high.

Mayor BOOKER: Well, that's a frustrating thing. You know, up until this incident, we were at 30 percent drop in shootings overall and a 10 percent drop in murder. So everything, every category of crime was going down in double digits. But that's all overshadowed when something like this happens and really hits to the heart of our community, and I think everybody is really shaken by it.

INSKEEP: Have there been - go ahead. Go ahead.

Mayor BOOKER: You know, we know Newark is heading in the right direction. We're really turning a corner by every measure. There's an excitement in the city. Community leaders, community neighborhoods are just showing so many signs of progress. But when you have something like this happen, it really shakes the community.

INSKEEP: Have there been other high profile killings?

Mayor BOOKER: No, there haven't. Again, we were heading towards one of our safest summers in years. A lot of the things that residents are doing, activists are doing, clergy even patrolling streets, have been showing tremendous progress. So Newark was really doing a lot to really challenge the stereotypes that people have often of our great city, and the people were standing up.

But this shows that we still have a problem. We still take it very seriously. We're working to push it down. And I'm encouraged that we're going to deal with this. We're going to come together.

The father of one of the victims said very eloquently that, you know, he really wants to see his son's death be a spark to pull people together. And that's what we're doing right now.

INSKEEP: A lot of them…

Mayor BOOKER: This is a national problem. You know, I've gotten calls from, you know, everybody from Philadelphia to - you know, Mayor Bloomberg was generous enough to reach out and…

INSKEEP: From New York City.

Mayor BOOKER: You know - oh, exactly. And, you know, this is something we really have to face - gun violence in our country. And I think that while we're going to deal it locally here in Newark, we all have to be cognizant that's there's things we could be doing to change the way we go about fighting crime, but more importantly preventing crime.

INSKEEP: Just one brief question. We've just got a few seconds. A lot of the violence in past years in Newark was drug-related. Can you name one thing you've done to reduce drug-related violence that you think is working?

Mayor BOOKER: Well, we have seen a lot of things work. One, we started a centralized narcotics bureau. We've shifted a lot more police officers onto our streets. We created a Fugitive Apprehension Team that's been remarkably successful in going after people with warrants, going after people who are known criminals. And we're doing a lot of things to focus on prison reentry, which we see as one of the maddening things it's not happening in the nation enough. But when guys come home, instead of re-arresting seven out of 10 of them within three years, we're trying to help them better reintegrate into our community.

INSKEEP: Okay. Mayor Booker, thanks very much for the update. Appreciate it.

Mayor BOOKER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Cory Booker is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, where police are still investigating the murders of three college students over the weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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