The heart of police reforms

U.S. cities that teach police to treat residents with respect and empathy go a long way in preventing police abuse and curbing crime.

Camden County Metro Police Chief Joe Wysocki raises a fist while marching with residents in Camden, N.J., to protest the death of George Floyd.

In his testimony to Congress Wednesday, the brother of George Floyd made a plea about reforming police departments in the United States. “Teach them what it means to treat people with empathy and respect,” said Philonise Floyd. For communities of color, he added, “make law enforcement the solution – and not the problem.”

Indeed, after the May 25 killing of George Floyd, cities across the U.S. are searching for fresh ideas in policing. In Minneapolis, the City Council took a radical step and voted to “defund” the Police Department. Other cities have been more modest, merely looking for successful examples to follow. In Dallas, for instance, when a police officer responds to a mental health call, a paramedic and a social worker go along in the car.

The end result of such reforms, however, must fulfill that plea for police empathy and respect toward a community. Examples can be found relatively easily. But if any city has shown how hard it is to achieve that goal, it is Camden, New Jersey.

In 2012, when Camden had a murder rate 17 times the national average, the entire Police Department was let go. The state built a new force under the wing of Camden County and appointed Scott Thomson as police chief. His No. 1 goal: Build a collaborative relationship with residents who at the time feared the police more than respected them.

If police learn to have greater empathy for the people they serve, said Chief Thomson, they will gain the trust of the community in preventing crime and catching criminals.

New recruits to the force were required to go door to door to meet the people on their beat. Police often held neighborhood cookouts or warmed up to teenagers by giving away ice cream from a truck. They were constantly trained on how to de-escalate a tense situation and to use deadly force only as a last option.

In the past seven years, violent crime in Camden has dropped 42%. In 2015, President Barack Obama visited the South Jersey city to praise its reforms. Much more work still needs to be done. Just over half of Camden’s police, for example, are people of color in a city of some 74,000 that is majority-minority. The state’s civil service exam remains a barrier to recruiting minorities.

Police reform can only go so far in a city that is one of the poorest in the U.S. Yet police in Camden are being taught to see dignity in the city’s residents, and in return, they are earning respect.

That was made clear May 30 when the current police chief, Joe Wysocki, was allowed to join a street march protesting the George Floyd killing. Images went around the world of the chief chanting “Black lives matter” with his fist in the air.

The protest organizers said they gained greater trust of Camden police that day. The city is not yet a perfect model for how to teach police to treat people with respect and empathy. But the city knows what lies at the heart of any reforms.

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