November 27, 2020

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7 years ago, this city disbanded its police force. It now serves as a model for others.

It has been hailed as a potential model of police reform, a crime-ridden city in southern New Jersey that disbanded its force and rebuilt it from the ground up.

The Camden Police Department underwent the unprecedented overhaul in 2013, leading to sharp reductions in crime and a focus on improved community relations. Seven years later, with the nation grappling over police reform after the killing of George Floyd, attention has turned to Camden for lessons on the path forward.

The reality, residents and advocates say, is complicated. Camden no doubt feels safer than it was a decade ago, they acknowledge, but the process was rocky, and problems persist.

In its early days, the new force ramped up summonses for such offenses as riding a bicycle without a bell, sparking a backlash from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. The department ultimately reversed course and implemented sweeping policy changes, but some long-term residents said the current stable of officers, nearly half of whom are white and many of whom live far from town, still have much work to do in building trust and confidence within the community.

“They are not jumping out dunking people on their head no more,” said Anthony Ways, who runs a community youth center. “But they are sitting there — 2, 3 in the morning — with the lights flashing being an intimidating presence.”

Ways spent 13 years in prison on a murder charge before he was exonerated in 2005.

“Somewhere in the middle,” he said, “they have to find that sweet spot where they can police but, at the same time, take account of the citizens and their concerns.”

Image: Anthony Ways, a Camden resident who runs a local community center. (Kenzi Abou-Sabe / NBC News)

Camden, a city of roughly 74,000 just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, was a thriving manufacturing hub in the early 1900s. But by the turn of the century, the city was in steep decline, and suffering from a population exodus.

Camden faced a crisis beginning in 2010, when the state slashed aid funding as part of spending cuts that Chris Christie, then the governor, imposed in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Roughly half of Camden’s 360 police officers were laid off. Arrests plummeted. Violent crime spiked.

In 2012, Camden recorded 67 homicides and 172 shooting victims. It was ranked the most dangerous city in America, with a murder rate more than 18 times the national average, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

With the city in dire straits, Christie and state Democratic lawmakers pushed to regionalize its police force. Politicians in Camden, including Dana Redd, then the mayor, lent their support to breaking up the city’s all-union police department and replacing it with a larger but lower-paid force.

Despite stiff pressure from the union and an outspoken group of residents, the Camden Police Department was formally disbanded in 2013.

The new force was led by the existing Camden police chief, Scott Thomson. He moved to remake the ethos of the department.

“We were going to have all of our officers have the identity of guardians and not warriors,” Thomson said in an interview.

Image: Scott Thomson, former police chief who led the transformation of Camden's police department. (NBC News)
Image: Scott Thomson, former police chief who led the transformation of Camden’s police department. (NBC News)

Thomson said all new recruits were told on their first day that their jobs would more closely resemble those of Peace Corps members than Special Forces operatives. “There were a handful of people that did an about-face and left,” Thomson said. “And as far as I was concerned, that was addition by subtraction.”

Officers flooded the streets and held cookouts and other events to improve community relations. The crime rate soon began to drop.

The new approach was on vivid display in 2015 when police surveillance video captured an extraordinary encounter with a man brandishing a knife. A group of officers responded to an eatery after the man walked in and menaced customers.

The officers encountered the man on the sidewalk outside. Instead of shooting him or trying to disarm him, they walked with him for several minutes. “Drop the knife. Sir, drop the knife,” one of the officers said repeatedly.

They tried to disable him with a stun gun, but that failed. Still, the officers managed to tackle the man to the ground and disarm him, apparently without causing serious injury.

“There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that six months prior to that, we would have shot and killed that man,” said Thomson, who retired last year. “That was a watershed moment for our organization. And that was a moment in time that really signaled to me that the cops got it right.”

But Camden’s new force also courted controversy. Summonses skyrocketed for petty offenses, such as failing to maintain car lights, having tinted windows and riding bicycle without bells or lights. Advocate groups complained. Critical newspaper articles were published.

Amid the backlash, Thomson took rapid steps to transform the department’s approach to low-level offenses, said Alex Shalom, a senior attorney at the ACLU of New Jersey.

“Under Chief Thomson, what they said is: ‘Look, we’re trying to police a poor community here where tickets can have a life-changing impact on people’s very being, and so we want to be really circumspect about when we’re issuing them,'” Shalom said. “That was a remarkable change in policy, and an important one.”

With the help of the New York University Policing Project, the Camden force went on to develop a body camera policy. And three years later, it adopted one of the nation’s most comprehensive use-of-force policies, an 18-page document seen as a model for other departments. The policy was drafted with the help of the NYU Policing Project and vetted by the ACLU of New Jersey and the Fraternal Order of Police.

By 2019, the number of homicides had dropped to 25, a decline of nearly 63 percent from 2012.

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Camden County police Lt. Zack James stood on the corner of North Fifth and State streets, where several families could be seen sitting on their stoops.

“Ten years ago, we had drug dealers on every corner,” James said. “You wouldn’t see any children, because they were scared to come out of the house.”

Image: Camden County Metro Police Lt. Zack James and Officer Mayah Bailey speak to a resident. (Kenzi Abou-Sabe / NBC News)
Image: Camden County Metro Police Lt. Zack James and Officer Mayah Bailey speak to a resident. (Kenzi Abou-Sabe / NBC News)

“This was a rough place,” he added. “If the police came to make an arrest, we’d get bricks and bottles thrown at us. It’s dramatically changed.”

The change was on display in the days after the death of Floyd when the current police chief, Joseph Wysocki, joined with demonstrators marching against police brutality. Protests turned violent in several cities, including Philadelphia, but Camden remained calm.

Corinne Bradley-Powers, who runs an acclaimed soul food restaurant, said she was heartened by the sight of the police chief marching side by side with protesters.

But she lamented that cops are rarely seen on the streets around her restaurant, Corinne’s Place. Bradley-Powers also said the department’s racial makeup doesn’t match that of the predominantly Black city. And in the early days of the transition to the new force, she was concerned because of the white officers’ lack of exposure to Black people.

Image: Corinne Bradley-Powers, owner of Corinne's Place, a well-known soul food restaurant in Camden. (NBC News)
Image: Corinne Bradley-Powers, owner of Corinne’s Place, a well-known soul food restaurant in Camden. (NBC News)

“It’s a little better now. We have a rapport,” Bradley-Powers said. “Some came in the other day, and I gave them a thumbs up and told them I was proud of them for marching.”

Shalom, of the ACLU-NJ, said the focus on Camden after Floyd’s death speaks to the lack of successful police reforms in the U.S.

“Since there have been so few examples of reforms that make a meaningful impact on the lives of people in the cities where ‘reform’ happens, people are looking to Camden,” Shalom said.

“Perhaps the absence of good models suggests a need to reimagine policing and police reforms rather than trying to chase imperfect examples of reform.”