- Keith E. Benson is the author of “Education Reform and Gentrification in the Age of #CamdenRising: Public Education and Urban Redevelopment in Camden, NJ” and the president of the Camden Education Association.
- Camden has recently received attention as an example of a city that disbanded its police force — it was part of a campaign to rebrand Camden, Benson writes.
- The year the city's 140-year-old police force was terminated, Camden experienced a record number of homicides.
- Though Camden's crime stats have since declined, there are also fewer people and less affordable housing now — and there's suspicion among residents that violent crimes are going unreported.
- Camden is still the most dangerous city in New Jersey, and there's been a spike in abuse-of-power allegations against the new police force.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The evening of June 7, I received a direct tweet from Michael Leo Owens, professor of political science at Emory University, that read, “So many [eyes] gonna be looking to Camden for predictions re Minneapolis.”
I didn't believe it. I was slightly amused that Camden would ever be suggested as an exemplar of “successful” policing for any city, but especially Minneapolis, whose City Council recently said it would abolish the embattled police department following the widely viewed killing of George Floyd.
Sure enough, Owens was correct in his prediction: No less than 12 hours after I read his tweet, I saw a slew of media outlets hailing Camden's County Police Department as a potential model for urban locales experiencing conflicts between their residents and police.
Despite the wave of media gushing over the newly created CCPD, readers should know this about Camden, where I call home: This is a city where narrative is the king and details and nuance are its enemies
As a current Camden educator and resident, I know things about my city that outsiders may not — specifically, how important narrative is to Camden policymakers seeking to redevelop and remake Camden. After all, examining the narrative around a Camden Renaissance within a redevelopment and education context was the topic of my doctoral dissertation and recent book, “Education Reform and Gentrification in the Age of #CamdenRising.”
“Camden Rising” is Camden's redevelopment plan, created by powerful non-Camden residents, aimed at attracting young, white professionals to move here. It shifted governing power over public services — including education, housing, economics, and public safety — from Camden's primarily Black and Latino residents to county and state officials. And the 2013 creation of the CCPD was integral to the Camden Rising redevelopment strategy of recasting Camden, long viewed in local and popular media as “dangerous,” as now “safe.”
From 2012 to 2016, the powerful Democratic power broker George Norcross III and Gov. Chris Christie worked in coordination to execute Camden Rising, which was intended to remake Camden's image as a rebounding Northeastern post-industrial city. And vital to that change in perception was the defunding and collapsing of Camden's police department to create the CCPD.
Christie slashed Camden's “Transitional Aid” from $69 million in 2011 to a meager $10 million in 2012, which resulted in cuts to city services and libraries and included laying off firefighters and 167 police officers. And though Camden was the nation's most dangerous city in 2012, Mayor Dana Redd, supported by Christie (who had 2016 presidential aspirations) and the Camden County Democrats, laid off the remaining 270 Camden police officers, against residents' wishes.
With that, the city's 140-year-old police force was terminated. And with a skeleton police crew operating in the city, Camden that year experienced a record number of homicides: 67.
At the end of 2012, the Camden Police Department was plagued by rising crime, budget cuts, layoffs, and low morale. In 2013, the new CCPD was approaching fully staffed status, with 411 officers, up from 250, and stocked with the latest crime-fighting technology. Both the updated technology and the increased manpower — funded through federal grants and increased county taxpayer dollars — were featured by Vice News and CNN's “United Shades of America.” CCPD Chief Scott Thompson appeared on national news outlets, including on “Face the Nation,” to tout the department's new technology and community-policing strategies as responsible for reducing crime.
The new force was hailed as a national model of effective policing strategies and leadership. The narrative was cemented by a May 2015 visit by President Barack Obama to Camden to tour the county forces and to highlight Camden's safer streets specifically and the city's “renaissance” generally.
That narrative has continued, to varying degrees, ever since
It has been revived with the CCPD's recent coverage in national media, including MSNBC, CNN, and the Los Angeles Times. With clips of officers hosting cookouts and eating ice cream with children, it would appear to those unfamiliar that the creation of the CCPD and its community-policing model is a success.
But there's always more to the story.
As many subsequent FBI reports and criminologists have noted, violent crime has been going down nationally since the 1990s for a variety — or combination — of reasons. And except for a few outlier years, most recently in 2012, Camden has reverted to a range of 20 to 30 homicides per year, even with the fully staffed CCPD. Camden has ranked as the 10th-most-dangerous city in America and is still the most dangerous city in New Jersey. While that does constitute statistical progress compared with 2011 and 2012, when Camden was ranked the most dangerous city in America, context matters.
In 2010, Camden had roughly 77,000 residents; today, the number is closer to 70,000. In addition to fewer people, there are also fewer public housing complexes, less affordable housing, and fewer Section 8 offerings within city limits. There is also a widely held suspicion among Camden residents that violent crimes are going unreported in media and reclassified at department headquarters as nonviolent offenses. This is on top of the spike in abuse-of-power allegations against the CCPD since its inception and the beatings of residents captured on camera and viewable on YouTube.
Camden may seem like a policing success story as reported crime stats decline and the CCPD tries to take on a community-based approach to policing. I am conceding that all that may be true. Cities are free to look at what the CCPD is doing that “works” and determine what is right for their own municipality.
But determining the transferability of the CCPD's approach should be done thoughtfully, with skepticism, and with all the facts and context. Because when it comes to Camden reporting and its police narrative, truth — as many residents know — is often a victim.
Dr. Keith E. Benson is the author of “Education Reform and Gentrification in the Age of #CamdenRising: Public Education and Urban Redevelopment in Camden, NJ.” He taught in Camden city public schools for 14 years and currently serves as president of the Camden Education Association.