By Hilary Russ
NEWARK, New Jersey (Reuters) - The mayor of Newark on Tuesday pledged to hire 100 more police officers for New Jersey's largest city after the Christmas Day shooting deaths of two teenagers helped push the homicide rate last year to a 23-year high.
"We have to put boots on the ground," Mayor Luis Quintana said in a press conference at Newark City Hall.
Quintana's announcement comes nearly two weeks after a 13-year-old honor student, Zainee Hailey, was killed by a stray bullet while taking out the trash on Christmas Day. Kasson Morman, 15, was also killed, and a 14-year old injured in the same incident.
A 15-year old has been charged in connection with the shooting.
The shootings capped a surge in the city's murder rate in 2013, with 111 recorded homicides, the highest number since 1990, according to local officials.
Quintana's initiative would mark the first major expansion of the Newark Police Department since the previous mayor, Cory Booker, slashed the force by more than 160 officers in 2010 amid tough contract negotiations and a budget crisis. The department currently numbers around 1,000 officers to patrol a city of 278,000 residents.
Quintana, formerly city council president, took over as mayor in November after Booker was elected to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Frank Lautenberg last June. His term expires in July, and the city will hold mayoral elections in May, with crime likely to be a major issue.
A Democrat, Quintana has not yet said whether he will run for a full term, but at least four others - including three of his former colleagues on the city council - have declared their candidacies.
In addition to the Booker administration's layoffs, the Newark police department has shrunk in recent years because of attrition, said police director Samuel DeMaio. Another 187 are eligible to retire this year, though only about half of those are expected to actually leave, he said.
In reference to the new hires, DeMaio said 50 have already been cleared to start the Police Academy in March, with the remainder expected to come on board over the rest of the year.
In addition to more officers, the department plans to hire another 25 civilian dispatchers and four accountants, and purchase more than two dozen new vehicles.
Quintana said the new hires and other moves will be funded from the police department's $137 million budget for fiscal 2014, which is up 2 percent from the year before.
(Reporting by Hilary Russ; editing by Gunna Dickson)