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Replacing its police force has brought Camden, N.J., more peace but lingering questions...

Updated: Nov 15, 2022

ADRIAN MORROWU.S. CORRESPONDENT

CAMDEN, N.J.

PUBLISHED AUGUST 22, 2022


Nine years ago, a U.S. community with soaring violent crime rates got rid of its municipal force and brought in a new vision for community policing. The Globe went there to see how it’s working out.



Peter Macpherson, a community outreach officer in Camden, N.J., greets a child outside a local business, part of the daily routine of the force's preventative policing.RACHEL WISNIEWSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL


When he started out as a police officer at age 19, Gabriel Rodriguez was on a mission.


Having grown up in a housing project in Camden, N.J., Mr. Rodriguez was determined to crack down on the gangsters who made his neighbourhood unsafe. He regularly arrested three or four people a day. He took piles of guns and drugs off the street. He was shot at.

But over time, it became clear that his tactics weren’t working.


“After so many years of pro-active work and thousands of arrests, I realized that not much had changed,” he recalled. “Every time I came out, there was another person on that corner, there were more drugs being sold.”


Camden was in trouble, with violent crime increasing even as its population shrank. A decade ago, this city of fewer than 80,000 across the Delaware River from Philadelphia had the highest per-capita murder rate in the United States. During its Great Recession nadir, Camden laid off nearly half its police officers in a round of budget cutting.


In 2013, the state took dramatic action. It dismantled the city police and replaced them with a newly created force under the aegis of the county.



Over the following years, the Camden County Police Department made significant changes, partly at the instigation of reform-minded leaders and partly because of pressure from local activists. Officers were now obliged to spend much of their time patrolling on foot, introducing themselves around the neighbourhood and holding community events. They were also trained to de-escalate confrontations and dial back their use of force.




A sign welcomes people to Camden.

RACHEL WISNIEWSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL


Since the changes, Camden has logged a steep decrease in crime. Homicides dropped to 23 last year from a high of 67 in 2012. Violent offenses in general have fallen by 40 per cent over the past 10 years.




Not everyone agrees that the police department, of which Mr. Rodriguez was made chief in 2020, has really turned things around.


Activists are pressing for a civilian oversight body to handle complaints, which the force lacks. Also, roughly half its staff is white, policing a community that is 90 per cent either Hispanic or Black. Crime in Camden is still relatively high and the city’s population is still dropping.


Officers, community leaders and residents, however, say the department’s approach has been effective. And as the U.S. grapples with a surge in gun violence, it may offer lessons. While other cities have seen spikes in shootings since the start of the pandemic, Camden’s numbers have been mostly flat.


“The culture of the agency changed,” Mr. Rodriguez, 39, told The Globe and Mail as he sat in police headquarters one sweltering August morning. “When I got out of my car, started talking to people, having coffee in their houses, getting invited to dinner, they would then call me before something happened.”



Officer Macpherson and colleague Lissandra Sime bring free cases of bottled water to seniors.RACHEL WISNIEWSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL


A former industrial centre, Camden has suffered a long-term decline because of factory closings and suburbanization. From a peak of 125,000 people in 1950, the population has dropped by 40 per cent. Its median household income of US$27,000 is less than one-third that of the state as a whole. Amid persistent city budget cuts and a lack of economic opportunities, crime spiked.

The solution was to dismantle the police department and start over. The main effect of the move was to break the officers’ union. The new force hired more cops by paying them less, and implemented the community-policing model with little ability for veteran officers to resist.


Community organizations were also working to change the city by showing disadvantaged young people alternatives to gang life.


At Cure4Camden, which started in 2014, outreach workers seek out people who are either at risk of committing or becoming a victim of violence. Sometimes, this entails going door to door. Sometimes, it involves tracking down shooting victims in hospital. The workers help their charges find work or education, and try to dissuade them from criminal activity. When conflicts simmer, they head to the neighbourhood to try to defuse the tension.




“It takes a while for us to establish trust. Once they see that you’re there to help them, and you actually show up every time, they approach you,” said Maria Hernandez, 40, who started working for the group after her own partner was murdered.



Abdul Malik Jackson, a program supervisor, recounts the story of one Cure4Camden participant, a homeless 17-year-old who was shot eight times. When outreach workers found him in hospital, his main request was a gun to protect himself. But thanks to their work, he was able to graduate high school, find a job and move in with family.


Abdul Malik Jackson and Maria Hernandez are supervisors at Cure4Camden.

RACHEL WISNIEWSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL


“We have to stop that transmission of violence, and introduce new norms, that there are other ways to react when you’re confused or you’re angry,” Mr. Jackson said. “I’m 48 and all of my friends are dead. Every last one of my friends from childhood has died from violence in the community.”


At the Jerrothia Riggs community centre, a group of non-profits and volunteers have spent the past four years renovating a formerly disused building into a hub for youth programs. There’s a dance school, a radio station, a basketball league and mentoring groups.


“This generation is the generation of creators and entrepreneurs. Whatever wasn’t given to them, they created it. You have less time to get involved in the bad stuff,” said Nyemah Gillespie, 34, who runs the dance program.


She said police have been helpful, too. Where they used to try to shut down large community events, they now show up to direct traffic and play basketball. “When you give respect, that kind of experience, it breaks that barrier,” she said.



Gradually, the city saw its lowest crime numbers in 50 years. It has also posted an improvement


at solving murders – more than 90 per cent in 2020, compared with one-third a decade ago – which police attribute to people now being more willing to help their investigations.

The Camden County Police Department, however, has faced extensive criticism.

Pam Grayson-Baltimore and Nyemah Gillespie run programs

out of a renovated community centre.

ADRIAN MORROW/THE GLOBE AND MAIL


In the early years, it implemented a clampdown on minor offenses, handing out reams of tickets for things such as disorderly conduct and driving with burnt-out tail lights. The new force is also whiter than the one it replaced, with many officers living outside the city. A heavy investment in surveillance cameras has raised the hackles of civil-liberties advocates.


Ultimately, the department backed away from the “broken windows” theory of policing as it became clear how badly it was damaging goodwill in a city where people could ill afford to pay fines. Now, officers are discouraged from chasing too many petty infractions. Their computer system is designed to flag cops who hand out large numbers of fines so they can be investigated and disciplined if the tickets are unreasonable.


On the equity front, Camden successfully lobbied the state government to drop a requirement that prospective hires write a civil-service exam. The aim is to bring in more cadets from the city, who often lack time and resources to study, compared with more affluent applicants from the suburbs.


Amid pressure from the NAACP and other social-justice groups, the police also adopted a new use-of-force policy in 2019. It requires officers to de-escalate confrontations before resorting to weapons, and to intervene if their colleagues are using excessive force. Activists are still pressing for the creation of a civilian oversight board. While complaints about police misconduct dropped from 65 in 2014 to five in 2020, they are still mostly dealt with internally.


Some critics, meanwhile, maintain that community-policing tactics aren’t as effective as advertised.


Eugene O’Donnell, a criminologist at John Jay College, contends that Camden’s model allows some crime, such as traffic offenses or shoplifting, to go unpunished and unrecorded. These things, he said, may not show up in top-line numbers on violence reduction but still affect what it’s like to live in a city.


“They’ve made a pact to peacefully co-exist with people who are destroying the neighborhood,” said Prof. O’Donnell, a former New York police officer and prosecutor. “The Camden miracle is a farce.”



A memorial in Camden pays tribute to a resident who died. Violence in Camden has decreased in recent years, but remains higher than in other communities.RACHEL WISNIEWSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL


Although slashing officer pay allowed the department to hire more cops, the force has struggled with high turnover: The average age of a Camden officer is just 23 years old.


The city’s levels of violence remain relatively high despite the decreases in recent years. Its violent-crime rate in 2021, for instance, was more than four times the national average. The poverty and outmigration have yet to turn around.


It is also often difficult to attribute changes in crime rates to policing when compared with other factors, such as demographic trends or the work of anti-violence groups in the community. During many of the years that violent crime dropped in Camden, for instance, it fell in other New Jersey cities, too.


One contentious area on which Mr. Rodriguez sees no problems is the use of surveillance.


Standing in the force’s command centre, on the top floor of headquarters, he recounts an incident last summer where it proved particularly useful. After receiving a tip that four men were heading to a barbecue to settle scores, officers used surveillance cameras to locate the approaching group. Police were dispatched and stopped the men, who were armed, a block away from the party.


“We were able to stop a mass shooting. These are invaluable investments that make people feel safer and deter criminals,” he said.


In the 24-hour command centre, video monitors show camera footage from around the city. A board lists the current locations of every police officer on duty, with an adjacent map pinpointing them, along with the locations of calls to police. Intelligence officers monitor social media.



A few floors below, in the building’s basement, police have built a virtual-reality training facility. Officers are typically instructed to spend about 45 minutes of each shift here, where they can run through any of 300 potential scenarios. Launched alongside the new use-of-force policy three years ago, the training emphasizes de-escalation.


Chief Gabriel Rodriguez, right, in the department’s command centre.

ADRIAN MORROW/THE GLOBE AND MAIL



On a recent afternoon, Will Ramos, a 43-year-old K-9 unit officer, practiced talking down a man threatening to toss his child off a bridge. Standing on a stage surrounded by five video screens, Mr. Ramos kept calm as he tried to defuse the situation. At one point, a more aggressive officer appeared virtually on the screen, approaching the scene with a drawn gun. Mr. Ramos sent him away.


Trainers Ralph Thornton, 48, and Pat Giannini, 53, observed. In addition to running this room, they review officers’ body-worn camera footage and coach them on what to do differently.

“The key here is proportionality of your response. I wish we were taught that many years ago when we started,” Mr. Thornton said. “Back then, they would teach us that you’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by six. Now, the culture is that we protect life.”


As the mercury touched 40 C, Camden police officers Lissandra Sime, 33, and Peter Macpherson, 40, walked up to Esther Mercado-Pitts’s home. They had come to drop off a case of bottled water. Part of the force’s community-outreach unit, their work consists of meeting with neighbourhood leaders, performing wellness checks on senior citizens and organizing block parties. Sometimes, they’ve offered to mow lawns for people who can’t do it themselves.


Ms. Mercado-Pitts, 60, who runs her area’s residents association, said that in years past, people wouldn’t dial 9-1-1 for fear of being labeled a snitch. These days, police are seen around the neighbourhood so often that it’s safe to contact them without anyone thinking anything of it.

“It used to be that people were more afraid of calling police, they were afraid of the thugs and retaliation. Now, I can call them if there’s an issue,” she said.


At a bodega down the street, owner Toribio Fernandez, 52, said things have gotten significantly better with the police presence.


“Ten years ago, you had a crowd, drug sales outside the store, people fighting. People weren’t able to come inside,” he said. “Now you can see, there’s no one. It has a lot to do with the police officers walking the street, engaging the people.”


Beyond the police’s higher visibility, people around town said the attitude of the officers they dealt with had changed.


“It used to be a power thing, like ‘You gotta listen to me, because I’ve got a gun,’ ” Jacqueline Santiago, a 31-year-old warehouse worker, said at a neighbourhood barbecue as officers tossed a football around with a group of kids. “You never saw police doing things like this.”

Sitting in a park with a group of friends as evening fell, Antwan Brown recounted how Camden police in the 1990s would beat him up and take his money.


“They used to rob everybody on the street. They harassed you, they’d slam your face just for being Black. They would categorize all Black people as drug dealers or criminals,” said Mr. Brown, 43, who works on a city road crew. “The police now are cool. They’re not like the old police.”


Mr. Rodriguez acknowledges that Camden still has a long way to go. But he says the city looks different from the one he grew up in.


The first time he was called to a shooting as a rookie cop, he arrived at the scene to discover that he knew the victim. It was a childhood friend of his who had joined a street gang, dead from two bullets to the head and holding an illegal gun. He was a product of the world the pair grew up in.


“It was normal for me as a kid to see people getting shot at, people getting assaulted,” he said. “How we measure success is going out and seeing kids riding bikes in the neighbourhoods, seeing people outside barbecuing. That was not normal when I was growing up.”



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