Until 2012, Camden, New Jersey, was noted for open drug sales and murder rates about six times the national average in a town of just 75,000. It had the fifth highest murder rate nationwide, at 87 murders per 100,000 residents. Lately, however, the city’s murders, robberies, assaults, property crimes, and other incidents have been dropping.
Camden’s police force also was known for corruption. According to CNN, lawsuits uncovered that officers routinely planted evidence on suspects, fabricated reports, and committed perjury. Courts overturned the convictions of 88 people after corruption was made public, the ACLU reported. City officials determined the department needed to be disbanded in 2012 because it was beyond reform.
J. Scott Thomson, the Camden chief of police during the transformation, told Sarah Holder of Bloomberg City Lab in 2018 that the biggest factor in its crime reduction might be the change in structure of the department. It shifted toward community policing and increased the number of officers at lower pay. A law-and-order approach transitioned to a more holistic philosophy.
“For us to make the neighborhood look and feel the way everyone wanted it to, it wasn’t going to be achieved by having a police officer with a helmet and a shotgun standing on a corner,” Thomson told Holder. His officers “identify more with being in the Peace Corps than being in the Special Forces.”
According to Associated Press, the policing switched from the “broken window” approach “that famously saw the department cite people for failing to have bicycle horns to a friendlier approach that sends officers into the community to host barbecues, hand out ice cream, and shoot hoops.”
New officers are required to knock on doors in the neighborhood they are assigned to patrol, CNN reported. “They introduce themselves and ask neighbors what needs improving. Training emphasizes de-escalation, and the department’s use of force policy makes clear that deadly force is the last option.”
However, Thomsen added, “It’s progress. It’s not success. We still have extreme challenges that keep us up at night.”
Camden investments in the local economy, workforce development, and education did get offenders off the streets, Thomsen said. Unemployment was still an issue even before the pandemic, however, including among the police force after state budget cuts in 2011. More than 300 Camden officers lost their jobs, and only half joined the new force.
Camden County’s Police Department data reveals:
Researchers are still testing long-term data on community policing’s impact on reducing crime. However, Camden is often used as an example of how a police department reformed relatively quickly, due to top-down leadership.
“The statistics are one thing, but how the people in my city measure public safety is not on a piece of paper,” Thomsen said. “It’s by what they sense when they open their front door.”
Today, according to AP, the city spends $68 million per year on policing — which is higher than comparable cities. Journalists Resource reports that the city spends $4.5 million on body cameras, street camera, and monitoring technology. Health care savings from treating gunshot victims was reduced by about $1 million each year.
The increase in surveillance and high-tech policing, with young and non-diverse officers from outside Camden, is not what all residents are hoping to see, however.
Surveillance technology is not without bias, as Minnesota Women’s Press contributor Stephani Maari Booker wrote recently. Seattle dismantled a $3.6 million wireless police surveillance network over concerns about faulty algorithms and lack of transparency.
During the Obama Administration, the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice was created to build a research base of more case studies, piloting community policing strategies in six cities. One of those cities is Minneapolis. The last report from the team was filed in 2018.
Programs were scaled back during the Trump Administration, including the Collaborative Reform Initiative, which encouraged community policing in U.S. cities, and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Several cities whose police forces were in the process of implementing reforms with the support of these programs have seen those efforts stall.
According to Associated Press in June 2020, Camden police officers marched calmly with residents and activists during the Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis.
Across the bridge, Philadelphia police in riot gear that day clashed with protesters as police cruisers were set on fire and storefronts vandalized.