New Police Force From Scratch: N.J. City Proves It’s Possible To Reform The Police – NPR

8June 2020

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Scott Thomson, a previous chief of cops in Camden, N.J., about the city's efforts to build a brand-new cops

force from scratch. MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST: In cities throughout the nation, huge and small, there are a few protest chants joining the crowds that are requiring an end to authorities brutality. They include, no justice, no peace; state his name, George Floyd; and this one – defund the authorities, a version of which occurred in Camden, N.J., in 2013.

Camden's murder rate was through the roof, and there were scores of excessive-force complaints. So Camden's mayor and city council liquified the city's police force and developed a brand-new one from scratch. Joining us now to speak about what that resembled and what occurred next is Scott Thomson, who worked as chief of cops on Camden's brand-new force from 2013 to 2019.

Scott Thomson, welcome.

SCOTT THOMSON: Hi, Mary Louise. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Just paint us, quickly, an image of what that minute was. What was happening then that triggered the mayor and the city board to state, you know, we got to do this; the only method forward is dissolve the authorities department, start over?

THOMSON: Well, at the time – 2012 into early 2013 – there was a public safety crisis in the city of Camden. Our murder rate was 18 times the national average. We were seeing crime rates that were going beyond that of third-world country.

So there was a bold political initiative to basically strike the reset button. And in 2013, every single Camden city police officer, including myself, was fired. And an excellent majority were hired over to the county police. But all of us needed to fill out a 50-page application, retake a mental, retake a physical and go through an interview process.

KELLY: And provide me an example of – because you stated you and a lot of the other police officers were the existing authorities department that then ended up being the brand-new police department. How different was it? Can you provide me an example of something that altered in the way the force engaged with the community?

THOMSON: You know, it actually started with having the ability to construct culture rather than change culture, and we had the ability to create a company where the identity of the officer was that of a guardian and not a warrior. I had the ability to change the entire efficiency metric system within the organization that did not measure a police officer's efficiency by the variety of arrests that they made, but rather, what were the outcomes rather than the outputs? When I drove down city streets, I wanted to see little kids riding their bikes in front of their houses, and I wished to see people sitting on their front actions.

We changed the whole structure of the organization. We changed the entire reward system within the organization, and we put them out there in – on street corners and said, we do not desire you to lock anyone up. We don't desire you to write any tickets. We want you to be out here and speak with individuals. Let them be familiar with you, and you get to know them.

KELLY: Was there a drawback? You showed up through the conventional system of practices. Did you feel like you lost anything by getting rid of a more conventional police force, more traditional practices?

THOMSON: No. As a matter of reality, I experienced a maturation in my time as a law enforcement officer and as an authorities chief, and I was a professional specialist in failed authorities policies. And every day, we used to come to work, and we thought that we could decrease drug dealing and gang activity by locking up drug dealerships. And we would put together teams. We would swoop in. We would do heavy enforcement.

And basically, all we were really doing was revictimizing individuals that lived within a community and (inaudible) chances for other criminals to come in and (inaudible) behind that which we were removing. We were doing whatever from a proactive point of view and doing it completely unilateral from the neighborhood in and of itself. We didn't have their authorization. We didn't have their consent. So we didn't have authenticity.

KELLY: I wish to keep in mind that homicides in Camden have actually gone method down considering that these modifications, considering that 2012. So have excessive-force grievances, I understand. Do you associate that to this brand-new method of policing, and how can you understand? I mean, how can you separate it out from other forces that may have been in play already?

THOMSON: So when you have a very low solve rate in your murders, that basically is a sign of having really poor levels of interaction with your community and very low levels of trust. We went from having a resolve rate of 16% in 2012 to 61% in 2014. So by increasing the level of human contact with individuals in the neighborhood, we had the ability to glean more details so that we might make the community safer for them and with them.

We led the state of New Jersey in 2012 with 65 excessive-force grievances. In 2015, we had three excessive-force grievances. So that's a 95% decrease. And we have body cams on all of our police officers.

KELLY: So what is your reaction to the calls we're hearing now – protesters calling on cities to abolish their police, to not have a cops department at all? These are individuals arguing that if you go back to square one with a brand-new police force like y' all did in Camden, that still isn't enough due to the fact that there's still all of the racist systems within which that force is operating. What's your response?

THOMSON: So that's a bit extreme. I don't see a democratic society in which you could entirely eliminate a police. I do believe that there are some severe conversations that can occur with concerns to defunding police. There are greater public safety returns on investment with programs other than putting cash towards enforcement.

KELLY: You indicate take some financing that's currently going to a police force; aim that into other places so that the police can concentrate on policing. Is that the argument you're making?

THOMSON: Well, that's precisely – I suggest, look. I would have traded 10 police officers for another Boys & & Girls Club. But the system needs to alter as far as having authorities react to incidents such as mental disorder. Cops are not equipped. They're not trained. They're not concentrated on that. But yet it continues to get entrusted to them.

So I believe if we changed the expectation of police and did not have them converging with neighborhood as often as it remains in areas where they don't have expertise, I believe that the tension on a few of these issues could definitely lower. If you put the money towards having experts handle these situations, I think polices would in fact appreciate that.

KELLY: So as you survey this moment in our nation in which everything playing out involving concerns over cops and excessive force – what goes through your mind – or let me ask it a slightly different method. What words of advice, as someone who's been through attempting to make significant modifications in your force – what tips would you have for other people leading and supervising cops departments in America today?

THOMSON: How I wish to see authorities react is I don't wish to see us circle the wagons. If you can't switch on any channel and see the public reaction to this and comprehend that in a democratic society, a cops is just efficient if it has the approval of the people – and to have the approval of individuals, you need to be genuine.

So as an authorities leader, I state, what is the damage with giving them voice, permitting them to come in and be a part of the process? And all the while, it gives us the ability to have the discussion and the education in both instructions of how difficult and tough circumstances can be much better fixed.

KELLY: Scott Thomson – he was chief of authorities for Camden, N.J., from 2013 up until last year.

Scott Thomson, thank you quite.

THOMSON: Thank you, Mary Louise.

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