Reconsidering police: How Camden, NJ, reimagined its force – Minneapolis Star Tribune

14June 2020

CAMDEN, N.J.– To Scott Thomson, changing the culture of policing in America is a fairly simple process.

It's simply not an easy one.

Thomson led a troubled cops department remodeling in Camden, New Jersey– a bad city of primarily brown and black locals just across the river from Philadelphia– in 2013.

After state authorities dissolved the old department and started anew, Thomson changed policing in Camden from the law-and-order, lock-'em-up technique of the 1990s to a holistic, do-no-harm viewpoint that's put the long-maligned city in the spotlight during the nationwide numeration over race and authorities brutality.

While authorities in other places encountered Black Lives Matter protesters outraged by the newest death of a black guy apprehended by authorities, Camden officers marched calmly with homeowners and activists.

“Our actions can speed up circumstances. What we should be attempting to do is de-escalate them,” said Thomson, a previous president of the Police Executive Research Forum who retired from the Camden job in 2015. “The last thing we desire is for the temperature to rise, and for situations to go from bad to worse because of our unsuccessful methods.”

However if the recent protest was peaceful, the county takeover of the Camden Police Department was controversial. More than 300 officers lost their tasks. Only half signed up with the new force.

In addition to the switch to neighborhood policing came a dependence on state-of-the-art, city-wide security, more patrols, and younger, less expensive, less varied officers who often aren't from Camden. Their typical age today is 26.

“That is an extremely various vision of what a brand-new police appears like than we're hearing from protesters, who desire less policing,” stated Stephen Danley, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University-Camden.


Ashly Estevez-Perez, 21, has spent the majority of her life in Camden, which is now about half Hispanic and 40% black. She remembers when kids were seldom enabled to leave their front stoops provided the danger of shooting.

“The new police force came in, and you saw vehicles everywhere. … Everyone was sort of taken aback,” she said of what some would call “over-policing.”

“Growing up in the city, I don't see what other alternative works,” stated Estevez-Perez, a current Rutgers-Camden graduate.

Activist and entrepreneur Sean Brown, 37, who is black, stated the security resolves the wrong problem.

“If we had financial justice in our community, where anyone who required a job could get a job, we would remain in a various space,” stated Brown, who is raising 2 young children in the city.

When a busy production town, Camden in the past few years has actually included enviable appeal to its commercial corridor as generous state tax breaks tempted Subaru, American Water and the Philadelphia 76ers (who built a practice center) to town.

They sign up with earlier development that changed Camden's downtown and southern waterside, consisting of a show location. The approximated $3 billion in development draws in suburbanites and utilizes some Camden locals. But residents argument simply the number of.

“I don't know someone who operates in any 76er job, any Holtec (International) job, any Subaru task,” said instructors' union president Keith Eric Benson. “Neighborhoods have looked truly similar today as they did 10 years ago.”

The authorities changeover followed state spending plan cuts that had actually required Camden to slash local services in 2011. Almost half of its 360 officers were laid off. Criminal activity surged.

Then-Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., signed up with regional Democratic power brokers in engineering a plan to remove the department, shed its costly union contract and create the Camden County Police Department.

Thomson stayed at the helm.

Gradually, his philosophy progressed from a “damaged window” technique that notoriously saw the department point out individuals for stopping working to have bike horns to a friendlier approach that sends officers into the neighborhood to host barbecues, give out ice cream and shoot hoops.

“I think we're received a lot better than we utilized to be,” stated Sgt. Dekel Levy, 41, as he assisted distribute diapers to a steady stream of young mothers Thursday afternoon at Guadalupe Family Services in North Camden.

The neighborhood, long one of the city's poorest and most dangerous, reveals signs of progress. The state prison that controlled the neighboring waterfront has actually been changed with a park. Aging schools have been spruced up.

Criminal offense rates have fallen– whether due to the cops engagement, the increased financial investment, the thriving Philadelphia economy or the nationwide decrease in violent criminal activity.

According to cops department information, Camden's yearly murder tally has fallen from 67 in 2012 to 25 in 2015; break-ins from 755 to 304; and assault with a weapon from 381 to 250. The city, with about 73,000 homeowners, spends $68 million per year on policing, even more than some similar cities.

“There is no doubt that Camden is safer than it remained in the austerity period. There's a great deal of doubt about whether that's straight due to the new police,” Danley stated.


As Estevez-Perez marched in Camden's Black Lives Matter demonstration May 30, Police Chief Joe Wysocki assisted bring the banner at the front of the pack.

“I just felt I needed to do it. George Floyd's death was extremely hard to watch, and it was terrible what he went through,” Wysocki, who is white, informed The Associated Press on Thursday. “I believe every police officer that saw that– every excellent cop– had a knot in their stomach.”

Across the bridge, Philadelphia cops in riot gear that day encountered protesters as patrol cars were set on fire and shops vandalized.

“It's a substantial sigh of relief that the city of Camden was not devastated over the past couple of weeks,” stated Sister Helen Cole, a Roman Catholic nun who runs Guadalupe Family Services.

Cole, the daughter of a Philadelphia law enforcement officer, has actually seen stress appear and the city fired during almost 30 years in Camden.

Today, she cheers officers who deal with troubled teens and department figures that reveal a sharp drop in excessive force problems– in the wake of a strict use of force policy– from 65 in 2014 to three last year.

“It's not like officers are the enemy any longer,” Cole said.

Still, Brown, the activist and entrepreneur, regrets that too couple of Camden citizens make it onto the brand-new force, which is 54% minority. Wysocki concurred, saying state civil service guidelines prevent his efforts. He hopes a recent salary increase, to $51,000 each year after training, will assist with retention.

“The exact same political will that went to taking apart and rebuilding the police department has to go into these other problems– job development and housing, too,” Brown said. “The momentum needs to continue for us to get where we need to go.”

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