- Dr. Stephen Danley is the graduate director of the MS/PhD in Public Affairs and Community Development at Rutgers University-Camden.
- He is a Camden resident, a Marshall Scholar, an Oxford and Penn graduate, and the author of “A Neighborhood Politics of Last Resort: Post-Katrina New Orleans and the Right to the City.“
- Camden's police department was first disbanded after austerity cuts, but a new force was created to increase policing and counteract the austerity measures.
- In 2013, the number of police grew — and the force became much whiter; excessive force complaints rose.
- In 2015, things began to change following news coverage of issues with the police force, the growing Black Lives Matter movement, and a de-escalation mentoring program.
- While the new force has improved after sustained efforts by local activists and the NAACP, it's still a complex story.
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Amid the mourning of lost lives and protesting of police violence, activists have picked up a rallying cry: Defund the police. And in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, the city council listened and committed to disbanding their police department.
And so eyes turned to my home, Camden, NJ, where the Camden City Police Department was disbanded in 2012. As the first wave of media hit the town, it told a simple story: The police force was disbanded, and crime went down.
Except it's not that simple. Lost in this narrative is that police violence increased after the change — and it was community watchdogs that pressured the new force into reducing such violence.
In many ways, the decision to disband the Camden police force started years earlier, when then-Governor Chris Christie cut municipal aid to cities in New Jersey.
The cuts prompted a crisis. It was worse in Camden, where the city lost $59 million dollars in aid. Services were cut. The police force was slashed. And Camden, heartbreakingly, lost its last library.
In other New Jersey cities, the cuts and crisis weren't quite as steep but were still painful. Most saw crime rise.
It was in the shadow of this crisis that the Camden City Police Department was disbanded — not to reduce policing in the city, but to increase it and counteract the austerity measures that forced the police force to be cut.
Opposed by a large community coalition, local residents collected signatures to put the issue on the ballot. The mayor took the issue to court, winning a temporary injunction to keep the issue from being voted upon. The New Jersey Supreme Court later ruled the injunction illegal, but it was years after the force had been disbanded.
What happened next remains the most misunderstood aspect of Camden's reform.
In the years after the force was disbanded, a new police force was launched and crime dropped.
But these drops were mirrored by drops in peer cities who had also been suffering from the austerity crisis. According to the FBI's Universal Crime Data, from 2012 to 2018, Camden's violent crime fell 23% and its non-violent crime fell 48%. In Newark, violent crime fell 25% while nonviolent crime fell 40%. In Jersey City, Trenton, and Paterson crime fell, though not quite as dramatically. Among peer cities in New Jersey, only Elizabeth has not seen sharp drops in crime.
In other words, the drops in crime claimed by the new force are mostly a reversion to previous levels of crime. As crime fell in Camden, it also fell elsewhere.
As the saying goes: There are lies, damned lies, and crime statistics.
Then came more police — and more police violence (2013-2014).
The Camden City Police Department was disbanded with the explicit goal of putting more police on the streets in Camden, NJ. And that's what the new force did — in 2013, the number of police in Camden jumped from 268 to 418, became much whiter, and embraced broken windows policing.
Broken windows policing is characterized by strict enforcement of small crimes to show that larger crimes will not be tolerated. The first year of the new force summonses increased for not maintaining lights or reflectors on your vehicle (421%) and for having tinted car windows (381%). Most bizarrely, summonses for riding a cycle without a bell or a light shot from 3 to 339. The new force was cracking down.
This is a recipe for more police violence. Stopping residents for minor infractions inflames communities and provides more opportunities for violence. And that's what happened in Camden. One resident told me: “With the new force, we were all suspects.” Sadly — yet predictably — excessive force complaints rose in the city.
Gradually, the situation changed to more police and less police violence (2015-2020).
Thankfully, in 2015 things began to change. For years, the local NAACP, led by Colandus “Kelly” Francis and Darnell Hardwick, had made public records requests laying the groundwork for local media coverage on issues such as the change in racial composition of the force, the high turnover among police, excessive force complaints, and more.
At the same time, residents voicing their own concerns were buoyed by the national Black Lives Matter movement, which provided language and support for activists in the aftermath of the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice.
In 2015, the Metro Police Department entered into a de-escalation mentoring program and began to rework their own use of force policies. The department started to implement best practices around reducing force and violence, which culminated in a 2019 policy that includes a clause requiring an officer to step in if another officer was inappropriately using force.
Soon after, NJ.com's Force Report showed force decreasing in the last year of its study (2012-2016). Excessive force complaints cratered in the years after 2014. These strategies seem to be working — not as a panacea to eliminate crime, but as an important means to limit police violence.
The Camden story is complicated.
Once a police force is disbanded, there is tremendous political pressure to declare the move successful — so much so that public officials are willing to bend crime statistics to the breaking point if it means they can take credit for a city's drop in crime. But creating a new force also exposes the new force and local politicians to criticism and political pressure.
Crime in Camden, and across peer cities in New Jersey, rose during an austerity crisis in the years prior to the disbanding of the Camden City Police Department. When crime dropped in Camden, it also dropped elsewhere — it's hard to attribute these drops to the new force. Worse still, in those first years of the Metro Police, there was more police and more police violence.
But that's not where the story ends.
Sustained efforts by the local NAACP highlighted these struggles, and local activists buoyed by the national Black Lives Matter movement continued to push the new force to become less violent. Over time, the new force began to listen, reducing use of force and excessive force complaints, perhaps because so much was invested in the new force being a success.
The victory in Camden is not one of disbanding; it's one of collaboration. Camden is an example of what can be accomplished when a community is vigilant, and a police force is willing to listen and reexamine its own violence.
Dr. Stephen Danley is the graduate director of the MS/PhD in Public Affairs and Community Development at Rutgers University-Camden. He is a Camden resident, a Marshall Scholar, an Oxford and Penn graduate, and the author of A Neighborhood Politics of Last Resort: Post-Katrina New Orleans and the Right to the City. You can find him on Twitter @SteveDanley.