Inside Camden, New Jersey’s high-tech police control center – Insider – Insider

5February 2021

  • Camden, New Jersey's police department has become an example of police reform since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
  • The city developed an extensive surveillance system with over 200 cameras and 70 microphones placed around the city. 
  • But the community is skeptical as to whether this method is effective, or harmful.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

In Camden, New Jersey, a high-tech network of cameras and microphones catch crime as it's happening.

It's the new way of policing here, ever since the city dissolved its police department in 2011. Plagued with internal corruption, spiking crime rates, and overspending, the department was disbanded and replaced two years later with a new force tasked with community-based policing. The city was quickly hailed as a model for police reform.

Now, the more than 200 cameras and 70 microphones are part of the city's newest strategy — but it's rubbing some the wrong way.

“Camden's not a model police department, unless you want to have your city and your residents under surveillance, 24 hours a day,” Kevin Barfield, president of Camden's NAACP chapter, told Insider.

We visited the Camden County Police Department last summer to see if its surveillance model contributes to effective policing, or what some might call ‘over-policing.'

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Branden Eastwood for Insider

As we walked inside the Camden County Police Department's multimillion-dollar command center, wall-to-wall monitors showing street corners from around the city covered the perimeter of the room. 

Crime analysts sat at desks parsing through video after video, sound after sound. 

One analyst for a  program called ShotSpotter showed Insider how police can track the locations of crimes through the department's extensive camera network.

“You can see exactly where in the city it's located, and then you can hit a street view, and the officers will know it'll be by the third house at the end of the block.”

The command center  is the department's crown jewel. In fact, there are less than 90 centers like it across the country. Relying on technology is a huge part of an officer's day. Most are equipped with body-worn cameras, which they use to review footage alongside supervisors. 

During our visit, new officer Anthony Alvarez watched playback from a moment when he and his partners responded to a call in a home. Inside, a man was threatening to harm himself and others with what looked like sharpened drumsticks. His partner later deploys a taser, effectively unarming the man. 

“Your mind kind of goes there, like you're nervous that this could go, you know, the worst possible way,” Alvarez said. 

New officers like Alvarez review their calls with supervisors. Sgt. Raphael Thornton, who's been on the force for almost 30 years, commends Anthony on his de-escalating tactics. 

“Good job going into talking to him. They didn't scream at him, “Drop the sticks, Drop the sticks!” You didn't agitate the situation. You kept your composure,” Thornton said to Alvarez.

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Branden Eastwood for Insider

All of this training didn't begin until after Camden dissolved, rebuilt, and renamed its police department between 2011 and 2013. Many of the issues the old police department faced began in the 90s, when crime spiked to some of the highest levels the city had seen. 

“We came to work and we almost lost sight of who we were protecting,” Thornton said.

It only got worse in the 2000s when officers were busted for pocketing money and framing suspects. 

“I heard other officers make comments such as, ‘Camden's a toilet hole, just full of crap,'” police chief Gabriel Rodriguez, then an officer, said. Rodriguez was born and raised in Camden, and took over the department following the departure of chief Joseph Wysocki. 

“I grew up in the projects, in one of the worst projects in East Camden. I'm not a criminal,” he said. “People that come out of Camden aren't criminals. But that's how police viewed them.”

On top of this, Camden spiraled into economic distress. The city was heavily reliant on state aid when former Gov. Chris Christie decided to slash the budget in 2011 due to expensive union contracts and a history of bad policing. 

“This was about responsible, caring leaders recognizing some undeniable truths about Camden City's law enforcement needs,” Christie said at an address to the city.

But in between those two years it took to form the new police department, crime in Camden skyrocketed.

In this period of time, Camden brought in a new chief, Scott Thomson, implemented new technology and training, and rehired some of the original staff. Wysocki, the department's recently retired chief, said he needed to re-submit an application for a job he'd been doing for over 20 years. 

“It was a decision that each officer had to make. Did you want to go through this? Did you want to be part of a new organization,” he said.

Some officers refused to join the new force because of lower wages and union disagreements. And many community members petitioned to stop the disbandment altogether. Still, violent crime did eventually go down since the new department launched in 2013. Homicides reached an all-time low in 2019. 

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Richard Jon Loria for Insider

But for some Camden residents, lower crime doesn't mean the problem is fixed. Barfield, the longtime resident of Camden and local NAACP president, says the overhaul sparked fears of over-policing in the community. 

“People in the community felt that we was under martial law,” he said. 

In fact, a Philadelphia Inquirer report found the number of excessive-force complaints nearly doubled just a couple of years after the department was formed. According to the department, those numbers have dropped significantly since then. Still, residents are wary. 

“You do not prevent crimes with technology. There was a lot of situations where community and businesses felt that they were being harassed and picked on, when police brought this term ‘law and order' to the city,” he said.

He said it's not clear whether the new technology brought to the city has actually reduced crime, or if it's just a talking point. On another note, the turnover rates made it difficult for the community to connect with cops. “Officers are constantly changing. How can you build any relationship [when] you're constantly seeing that high turnover of these new recruits that are coming in walking the streets.”

Shortly after the new Camden County Police Department was established, many officers quit or retired, and the new department struggled to keep its officers. Barfield also points to the fact that more than half of the department's sworn are white, patrolling a city that's more than 95% minority

Still, many police departments that are trying to reform have been watching Camden — especially in the summer of 2020. The department fell into the national spotlight after a photo went viral showing former chief Wysocki walking alongside Black Lives Matter protesters.

Former Chief Wysocki said he didn't think that moment would blow up. But he hopes the takeaway is that the department is striving to get better.

 “We have to keep getting better. We have to progress with time,” he said. “What we're doing in 2020 might not apply in 2030. Like the industry, we have to keep changing with the times.” 

“I think people at first, when you're introducing change, might be a little bit skeptical. We're going on seven years now of operating differently,” Capt. Kevin Lutz said. 

But community members like Barfield think more impactful changes need to be made. “You had seven years to try to figure this out. I would think that a system would have been in place by now.”

The department is on the verge of change again as Wysocki steps down to retire and Gabriel Rodriguez takes over.  “These problems in Camden didn't occur overnight,” Rodriguez said. “We still have a long ways to go. We're not waving the flag of victory, but we're headed in the right direction.”

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