Let’s not forget the complex history behind Camden’s changed cops – MinnPost

2July 2020

This commentary was initially published by NJ Spotlight, a not-for-profit news site in New Jersey.

Initially, it was exciting to see my photographs of Camden, New Jersey, law enforcement officer marching with protesters released all over the world.

Not any longer.

The images reveal an oft-maligned city reacting with unity and peace to the killing of George Floyd. They provide people hope.

However the most recent media story– that in 2013, the Camden City Police department was liquified in order to root out corruption, and from its ashes came a friendly, county-run force that sets a nationwide design for community policing– is a bridge too far. It's important to get the history right, since amidst require defunding police departments, what took place here shows that this is a more complex issue than people recognize.

It's real that Camden is much more secure these days. In recent years, the force has upped the hiring of minority officers, taught officers de-escalation strategies, worked more carefully with social service agencies, and hosted area events to be familiar with the neighborhood on a regular basis.

The political computation

But contrary to many of the reports that were published with my photographs in recent weeks, the Camden County Police Department was not substantiated of an altruistic desire to get rid of corrupt polices. It was produced by South Jersey political leaders, with the assistance of then-Gov. Chris Christie, to break the policeman union with contracts they thought about difficult, thus cutting costs.

The issue was that to make that occur, they laid off nearly half the police in January 2011. I stood in the street on that bitter, cold early morning enjoying tearful officers place their boots on the icy walkway in demonstration.

The most generous view of that– and the explosion of criminal offense that followed– would be that officials didn't realize what would happen. Many of us, though, believed it was perhaps the most cynical political choice we ‘d ever seen, an intentional effort to increase the criminal activity rate to justify a brand-new county department.

A field of crosses for murder victims

The death toll was so horrific that activists created a field of crosses in front of Camden's City Hall, planting a brand-new one for each of the nearly 70 murder victims in 2012. (There were 37 murders in Camden in 2010, 52 in 2011.) I was a regular visitor to the field; in some cases the heartbreaking images I took there went unpublished due to the fact that editors didn't wish to depress readers.

Lisa Anderson weeps

Photo by April Saul/Camden, NJ: A Spirit Invincible Oct. 16, 2012: Lisa Anderson weeps after a cross in memory of her kid, Lateaf Anderson, is positioned in a field commemorating 2012 murder victims in Camden. City legislators hated the makeshift graveyard, and feared it dissuaded visitors. Meanwhile, Matt Taibbi reported in Rolling Stone that resourceful Camdenites made T-shirts celebrating the transfer of power from police to the street, and that absenteeism amongst the cops who remained on the skeletal force was so high that there were times in 2011 and 2012 when the city was patrolled by as few as 12 officers.

Camden was declared a battle zone, and the stage was set to usher in the new county department that city leaders wanted. Nobody provided Camden citizens an option, and since a citizen petition drive to stop the development of a county police force was ignored, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2015 that the disbanding and reorganization was illegal.

By then, of course, it was far too late.

Obama's approval

The Camden County Police Department was barely an immediate success. City residents, many of whom loved then-President Barack Obama, could not fathom why he pertained to Camden in 2015 to congratulate its police force.

I could not either. The new department had not only had the highest variety of excessive-force complaints in the state however likewise the greatest turnover. Young officers, mostly white, came from all over the state to train in Camden, but numerous of them got away the harmful city so quickly that Camden requested for refunds from the towns where they end up for the cost of that training.

April Saul

April Saul For a time, the brand-new force accepted the since-discredited “damaged windows”theory of policing, which holds that revealing zero tolerance for small crimes can ward off bigger problems. In a poor city like Camden, getting a ticket for not having a bell on a bicycle felt like harassment.

A couple of months after Obama showed up, Camden resident Quinzelle Bethea spent Thanksgiving in a prison cell, charged with intensified attack, resisting arrest and obstruction after being beaten by a 27-year-old police called Douglas Dickinson for no real reason. As he was being carried to jail, Bethea reported that other officers, who knew that police's tendency for violence, were asking forgiveness. It was a confident sign that then-Police Chief Scott Thomson expressed appreciation to neighborhood members and other officers who stepped forward to share their issues. Charges were dropped versus Bethea, who took legal action against in federal court, and Dickinson eventually pleaded guilty to assault.

No fairy tale

One night around that time, I was pulled over in Camden with an African-American man in my passenger seat. “I wasn't speeding, was I?” I asked the Camden County officer, who was white like me.

“No,” he stated, taking a look at me and at my pal. “You were actually going type of slow. Are you all right?” The encounter puzzled me, however my passenger got it loud and clear, and had of course experienced far even worse insults than that.

While I praise what hard-won progress the Camden County Police Department has actually made and wish for continued enhancement, there is no rejecting that its origin was drenched in the blood of murder victims, that things became worse before they improved, which simple repairs are fairy tales.

I was there. And I have the pictures to prove it.

April Saul is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist whose long-lasting mission has been to help individuals understand each other much better. She earned a master's degree at the University of Minnesota and invested over three decades on the staff of the Philadelphia Inquirer, leaving there in 2014 to cover Camden for numerous media and her Facebook page, Camden, NJ: A Spirit Invincible.


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