Can Camden, N.J., serve as a model for police across US?

Nearly two years after Camden established a new community-based police force, President Obama on Monday hailed it as national success story.

Chris LaChall/Camden Courier-Post via AP
President Obama speaks to a group composed of Camden County Police Officers and Camden youth at the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, Monday, May 18, 2015, in Camden, N.J. Obama traveled to Camden to visit with local law enforcement, meet with young people in the Camden community and tour the Real-Time Tactical Operation Intelligence Center at the Camden County Police Dept. headquarters.

In 2012, crime was so bad and money so tight in the city of Camden, N.J., that city officials decided to take the dramatic step to scrap its 141-year-old unionized police department and replace it with a new, county-based force, one that focused more on putting cops on the street and building better relations with the residents they serve.

Nearly two years after establishing the new force, President Obama on Monday hailed the nascent Camden County Police Department as national success story, a model for other departments to emulate as cities across the country continue to grapple with increasingly stormy relations between cops and the minority neighborhoods they police.

“Just a few years ago, this city was written off as dangerous beyond redemption, a city trapped in a downward spiral,” the president said at a community center in Camden on Monday. “Parents were afraid to let their children play outside, drug dealers operated in broad daylight, there weren’t enough cops to patrol the streets, so two years ago the police department was overhauled to implement a new model of community policing.”

The community policing idea has been around for decades, but in the aftermath of police shootings and the deaths of black men in police custody in cities across the US – many of them captured on video – political leaders and police officials are being to refocus attention on such methods as they attempt to reestablish trust in their communities.

“I think there’s a clear recognition that police need to reengage and redouble their efforts and working with the community,” says Darrel Stephens, executive director of Major Cities Chiefs, a professional association of police executives based in Salt Lake City. "Once we got Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland and all the others – that’s why we’re seeing the emphasis on change.”

Camden, with nearly 40 percent of its 77,000 residents living in poverty, has long been one of the most dangerous cities in America. In 2012, after officials were forced to lay off dozens of police officers, there were a record 67 murders as violent crime skyrocketed. Union rules proved unworkable for both crime-fighting and the city’s meager budget, so the municipal department was simply shut down and replaced with a new county force with a new union contract.

But the new force also changed its tactics, hiring 411 officers – up from 250. There were fewer desk jobs and patrol cars and more cops were put on walking and bike beats – even as officers began to engage the community with reading programs and other community initiatives. Calls to 911, which used to take up to an hour to get a response, now get police on the scene in under 5 minutes.  

“The organization that we created was one in which a culture, from day one, was that our officers would be guardians, and not warriors," said Chief Scott Thomson to CBS News in April. "Our handcuffs and our service weapons would be tools of last resort.”

“By having officers out of their squad cars and walking their beats and riding bicycles, there is an enhanced level of human interaction between thee officer and the residents," Chief Thomson said. “The byproduct of that is enhanced relationships, and it sets legitimacy and trust.”

President Obama traveled to Camden to highlight these accomplishments, and unveil the report of the White House’s “Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” which emphasizes such community policing efforts.

“To me, being a police officer takes a special kind of courage,” the president said on Monday, “and when you match courage with compassion, with care and understanding of the community like we’ve seen here in Camden, some really outstanding things can begin to happen.”

But Obama and police officials emphasize that policing alone cannot begin to address the myriads of problems that communities like Camden continue to face.

“When you start getting into places like West Baltimore or neighborhoods in the Bronx, and they have been dysfunctional for generations, you can’t just say, now we’re going to do community policing and everything will be better,” says Edward Connors, president of the Institute for Law and Justice in Williamsburg, Va. “You can’t just sweep in community policing if the schools are bad, if there are no jobs – it’s all so much more connected.”

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