Public Safety & Justice

Can a New Police Force Turn Around Camden, N.J., One of the Nation's Most Violent Cities?

In hopes of reducing the city's high crime rate, Camden, N.J., made a controversial and unprecedented move a year ago to replace its police force.
by | June 2014
 

At the Community Baptist Church on Mt. Ephraim Avenue in the heart of the Whitman Park neighborhood of Camden, N.J., stained-glass windows are riddled with bullet holes. On a recent Saturday afternoon, pastor David King pointed out street corners near the church where men have been gunned down. Sometimes, he says, people have run inside the sanctuary for safety when drug deals go bad. On the streets of Whitman Park, King says, “there’s like a drug script that never shuts down.”

Whitman Park has become ground zero in the battle to take back one of America’s most crime-plagued cities. For the past several years, the crime rate in Camden, just across the river from Philadelphia, has consistently ranked in the top five nationally. In 2012, Camden saw a record-high murder rate that rivaled national rates of the most dangerous countries. Signs of crime are everywhere. Houses and storefronts sit abandoned. Some of the empty buildings have become hotbeds for drug crime; others serve as makeshift memorials to those who have been killed, with names and dates spray-painted on front porches. A “stop the violence” mural decorates the base of a rusting water tower.

In the face of this violence, Camden did something quite radical: It disbanded its 141-year-old police force. In its place, the surrounding county formed a new police department that it wants to expand to other jurisdictions outside the city. The Camden County Police Department rehired most of the laid-off cops, along with nearly 100 other officers, but at much lower salaries and with fewer benefits than they had received from the city.

Across the country, strapped budgets have pushed municipalities to consider consolidating some services, including public safety, with neighboring communities. Some are sharing patrol cars or facilities with other jurisdictions; others have merged departments. But Camden’s move is unprecedented in that no other major U.S. city has completely dissolved its force for a wholly new department that does not yet include other jurisdictions. The plan is to create a truly regional force run by the county. So far, though, it’s only operating in the city of Camden.

One year in, it’s too soon to say whether the change will be effective in turning around Camden’s crime. Some pockets of the city have seen crime decline; other areas haven’t changed much. In the first 12 months of the new department ending in April, the city of 77,000 recorded 57 homicides. That’s down from a record 67 in 2012, but it’s still higher than the city’s annual average of 48 in the last five years of the prior department.

More recently, police reported year-over-year declines for nearly all crime types for the first quarter of this year. Leaders attribute the decrease, at least in part, to the reorganized force that still isn't fully staffed. “We’ve started taking back sectors of the city on behalf of the residents,” says Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. “Children are playing in playgrounds and parks that they haven’t played in for years.”

Some in the law enforcement community, though, remain skeptical about whether the move was the right one. Maria Haberfeld, a department chair at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, says she’s concerned about the loss of institutional knowledge of the former officers who were laid off. Ditching the old department and building an entirely new one, she contends, won’t solve Camden’s problems. “Creating a new department,” she says, “is a completely misguided approach to effective policing.”

There is one very noticeable difference in Whitman Park over the past year: the number of cops on the street. Thanks to the reorganized force, there are now far more officers throughout Camden -- walking their beat in tandem, talking with residents, driving patrol cars.

Back in 2011, budget cuts led Camden to ax half its police force. At its low point, Camden was down to 175 officers, with as few as a dozen patrolling the entire city during peak crime hours at night. For a high-crime area like Camden, those numbers are anemic. Making things worse, the remaining officers frequently had to do double duty on administrative tasks, meaning they were stuck behind a desk. The department had become completely reactionary, unable to focus on proactive policing measures, says Chief Scott Thomson, who ran the former city department and now runs the new county force as well. “Our ability to police the city,” he says, “had been reduced to a triage unit going from emergency to emergency.”

When the city began publicly considering the dissolution option, it was, not surprisingly, met with some fierce opposition. As policymakers weighed the issue, a group of residents submitted a ballot initiative to stop the city from moving forward. The mayor and the city council president sued to block the petition. A superior court judge ruled in their favor, but the petition’s eventual fate will be decided by the state Supreme Court later this year.

Meanwhile, the city went ahead with the plan. On May 1, 2013, Camden laid off its entire force and the county took over. The city paid the county $62 million for operational costs and leased its police administration building for $1. Critics decried the reorganization as nothing more than union busting. By laying off the officers and rehiring them as county employees, Camden was able to slash officer pay and cut benefits roughly in half. In all, average per officer costs were trimmed from $182,168 to $99,605, according to county figures.

With those savings, the department, which has since unionized, hired scores of new officers while keeping overall costs about the same. An analysis of police employment data indicates that in the course of a year, Camden has gone from a bare-bones force to having at or near the highest police presence of any larger U.S. city on a per capita basis. By the time the force is fully staffed, which the county expects will be later this summer, Camden will have 411 full-time sworn officers, or about 53 for every 10,000 residents. Cities of populations exceeding 50,000 employed an average of 17 officers per 10,000 residents in the most recent 2012 data reported to the FBI. Only Washington, D.C., recorded a higher tally that year – about 61 officers per 10,000 residents – than Camden will once its new force is fully up and running.

Many of the newly minted officers are young recruits with either no prior or only part-time experience, a top concern for some local residents. To get them up to speed, the department has turned to its veteran officers. “The former city police officers who came over were the most important part of the puzzle with indoctrinating the new officers to the city, the neighborhoods and policing,” Chief Thomson says. Newly certified officers attend a regional police academy and complete another eight weeks of field training to prepare for the challenging environment Camden poses. “Until you’re actually there doing it on a day-to-day basis, it’s hard to wrap your head around it,” says Sgt. Kevin Lutz, who trains recruits at the academy. “We do our best to explain to them the different experiences we’ve had in the past, and try and really get them prepared for what they’re about to do.”

For Camden residents, the influx of additional police has taken some getting used to. Officers are making more traffic stops and issuing tickets for minor violations, such as tinted windows and obstructed license plates. They’re citing bicyclists for failing to have a bell or other audible device on their bikes. Even pastor King expressed frustration over being pulled over five times within a month for, among other things, driving with a broken headlight during the day. Many locals view the citations, which they say were never before enforced, as harassment. Police, however, say the city’s most egregious offenders also commit these types of minor violations. Armed robbery suspects, for instance, often drive cars with tinted windows. Drug dealers deploy lookouts on bikes. “We are going to leverage every legal option that we have to deter their criminal activity,” says Thomson.

There have been other clashes. The makeup of the newly expanded force is more suburban -- and much more white -- than the old city police department. More than two-thirds of the former department’s officers were minorities; they now account for about 43 percent of sworn personnel in a city that is 95 percent minority. That’s a problem, says Colandus “Kelly” Francis, head of the Camden County NAACP. “Most of them had never set foot in the city of Camden,” says Francis. “They don’t know who’s who.” Pastor King also suspects the new majority-white police force must overcome perceptions of kids in the neighborhood who aren’t yet accustomed to seeing them. “It’s going to be very hard for them to step into a place like Camden,” he says. “Maybe they’ll grab it later on, but there’s a whole method to dealing with folks here.”

The key to bridging any divides between officers and city residents, Thomson says, is increasing interaction. “When a cop works hand in glove with them to fix the problems that are keeping them from sleeping at night,” Thomson says, “they don’t care what the color of the skin of that officer is, what the accent is in his voice or where he grew up.” Accordingly, the department has placed a major emphasis on a community policing strategy. Officers routinely walk the beat, listening to residents’ concerns and hosting Meet Your Officers events to further engage residents -- things they couldn’t do before with such a limited force.

As part of the new department, the county has also implemented some state-of-the-art technological advancements. Inside its Real Time Tactical Operation Intelligence Center, analysts pore over monitors displaying surveillance cameras throughout the city. On a recent afternoon, one analyst conducting a “virtual patrol” moved from camera to camera, zeroing in on possible drug activity at Fourth and Vine streets. The department’s monitoring system displays locations of police cruisers, cameras, calls and reports of gunshots all on a single integrated map. Outside, shot sensors and more than 120 cameras now blanket the city. For a bird’s-eye view of an area, police can deploy Sky Patrol, a mobile observation tower that extends 40 feet high. They’ve also equipped some police cruisers with license plate readers that alert officers if known offenders are nearby.

Officials say some of the initial opposition to the new force seems to have cooled. Take Eulisis Delgado, a 60-year-old East Camden resident and anticrime activist. Delgado can often be spotted driving around the city’s roughest neighborhoods in a pickup truck decked out with signs and a large speaker cabinet in the back. With one hand on the wheel and the other on a microphone, he yells out messages. “Do not allow these drug dealers in your neighborhoods, residents of Camden! Take your neighborhood back!” Delgado was once a vocal critic of the reorganization plan, protesting outside the police administration building. Today he’s one of the new department’s biggest boosters. “A lot of the old officers, all they did was ride around and not do anything,” Delgado says. “These are soldiers we have here now.”

WATCH: Camden's Citizen Crime Fighter, Eulisis Delgado, in Action (Video)

By and large, residents remain roughly evenly divided over the still-young department. Part of the opposition stems from the city’s effort to block the matter from being put to voters. Brian Coleman, the lone council member voting against laying off the city police, contends residents were excluded from the process. A year later, though, he says some have moved on. “They want their neighborhoods stabilized and drug dealers off the corner.”

One aspect of Camden’s plan definitely has not yet been achieved: the creation of a truly consolidated countywide police force. As the plan was originally envisioned and touted, other municipalities within the county would do as Camden city had done, disbanding their local departments and rolling them into the county force. That hasn’t yet happened. A year into the initiative, none of the other 34 municipalities in Camden County that have their own police forces have bought into the countywide department.

County Freeholder Cappelli says the county has been in talks with two municipalities, but so far no locality has been willing to cede control. In terms of finances, Cappelli says, it should be a “no-brainer.” He suspects, though, local police chiefs are talking their mayors out of it. “Protecting one’s fiefdom is the only thing stopping this department from growing leaps and bounds,” he says.

Cappelli says preserving quality service is other jurisdictions’ top priority, so they’ll be watching to see how the new department fares. “If we can do it in Camden city,” he says, “we can do it in any other municipality in Camden County.”

For jurisdictions wanting to join, the county conducts an assessment, with the locality’s input, of operating costs it would need to pay for a new metro division. The county police department is structured to allow for centralized administration, booking and evidence collection. Jurisdictions opting to join would also share narcotics, detectives and various special teams. Any expansion would not affect the department’s current officers, the county reports.

Much of the push for New Jersey’s localities to consolidate or share services has been driven by the state. Right now, more than 500 local law enforcement agencies are spread across New Jersey, and Gov. Chris Christie would like to see some of those consolidate to better realize savings through economies of scale. In 2011, Christie met with officials from Camden, Newark and Trenton. Christie made it clear, Cappelli says, that the administration would provide strong backing to any new county police departments.

So far, only Camden has taken him up on the offer. Because of its already hefty dependence on state funding, some believe the city had no other choice. About 60 percent of city properties are tax exempt, and the tax base that does exist is predominantly poor. Property tax collections bring in a mere $25 million a year, so the state contributed about $114 million in fiscal year 2014 to cover the bulk of the city’s remaining budget shortfall.

Some lawmakers have been publicly blunt about the need for municipalities to share services. “We tried the nice way of giving you money and people wouldn’t take it to share,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney said in a 2011 press conference. “Now, my approach quite honestly is the stick approach. If you don’t share, we’re going to reduce your state aid.”

Unsurprisingly, cities often bristle at that approach. Bill Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, says he prefers that any consolidation efforts be homegrown. “We have a problem if the state is going to mandate sharing of services, consolidation or any particular program they believe is in the best interest of the communities,” he says. “The residents of the community are basically cut out of the equation.” More of the state’s localities are mulling consolidation or shared services agreements, and Dressel says they should be, particularly given budgetary constraints.

Any kind of consolidation agreement is a political challenge, but it’s especially hard for public safety services. Governments are reluctant to relinquish local control of their police forces. Even when they do consolidate, it’s not uncommon to continue maintaining separate public safety departments. Indianapolis consolidated with Marion County in 1970, for example, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the two merged police departments.

Nationally, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Smaller communities throughout California contract with counties, for instance, and many regional police departments operate in Pennsylvania. Full mergers of large departments are rare. Las Vegas merged its police department with the Clark County Sheriff’s Department in 1973; the city of Charlotte, N.C., joined forces with surrounding Mecklenburg County in 1993. But such full-scale mergers are few and far between.

Camden’s crime problems are deeply entrenched, and it remains to be seen whether the merged police force can help reverse the city’s cycle of violence. The drug trade holds a strong grip on the city, accounting for the vast majority of the killings. With 175 open-air drug markets at one point, Camden gained a reputation as a drug hub, attracting buyers from the surrounding suburbs and as far away as New York City. Indeed, nonresidents make up 80 percent of the city’s drug arrests.

Blight also remains a major problem. Some abandoned and decaying buildings have been taken up by gangs, so the city is exploring ways to raze or seal up empty structures. In some parts of South Camden, mountains of bottles and other trash spill out of alleyways and side streets. When police make a drug bust there, officers say they can spend hours searching for evidence among all the litter.

The city has a high concentration of young adults who tend to be disproportionately poor and unemployed. The latest Census estimates indicate 39 percent of city residents live in poverty, the fourth highest rate nationally.

There are some small reasons to be hopeful. The city says some businesses are now considering moving into Camden, something unthinkable even a couple years ago. Even in Whitman Park, there are hints of progress. On the neighborhood’s main corridor, a family is preparing to open a shop selling books and fashion accessories.

The police are an integral part of winning back the city, but turning Camden around will take much more than a redeployed police force. “At the end of the day, it makes no difference whether it’s 500 or 300 officers,” says Roy Jones, a local activist who also directs the nonprofit National Institute for Healthy Human Spaces. “It does matter what you do about some of the more systematic issues in this community.”

Chief Thomson, too, knows the city’s fate depends on more than his department alone. “We are in the equation of public safety and safe communities,” he says. “I believe we are the most important variable. But we’re one of many variables.”

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