By Michael Boren, Andrew Seidman, Aubrey Whelan, and Erin Mccarthy
Camden's recently formed police force has made headway in cutting crime and gaining the trust of the community, but still has a way to go and cannot do the job of lifting up the struggling city all by itself, President Obama said Monday.
"No one is suggesting that the work is done," the president said after lauding drops in violent crime in a city that for years has been at or near the top of the list of most violent cities in America.
Comparing 2012 -- the year before the new Camden County Police Department was formed to replace the existing city force -- to 2014, Obama noted that violent crime in Camden was down 24 percent, and the number of murders cut in half.
"This city is on to something; you've made real progress in just two years," he said.
But he said communities struggling with poverty and other ills, such as Camden, need attention from more than just their police.
Poor communities should be embraced as "part of America, too," he said.
"We can't ask police to contain and control problems the rest of us aren't willing to fix," Obama said, citing the racially tinged troubles in Baltimore and Ferguson that followed deaths at the hands of police there.
The president's assessment of the progress in Camden drew cheers from the invitation-only audience at the Salvation Army's Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center, and was echoed by several among the crowds outside.
"Fantastic. In one word, fantastic," said Ida Waters, 75, who grew up in Camden, of the new police department.
Chris Fernandez, 21, and Joel Hernandez, 22, both of Camden, said they feel safer now with more "proactive" police.
But there were also critics, among them Mitzi Collins, who said she was a former Camden city officer. "It's not a national model," she said, disputing Camden Mayor Dana Redd's recent characterization of the new force.
The ACLU pointed to an increase in excessive-force complaints against the department, though separately it also hailed the president's decision to bar the transfer of certain military gear to local police departments.
Alluding to the reports of two task forces he appointed after police shootings led to protests, Obama said his administration would restrict the transfer of military equipment to local police and assist departments in improving transparency in sharing enforcement information with the community.
He also bemoaned draconian drug laws that sentence many people to long prison terms for nonviolent offenses and thus empty out many neighborhoods of young men.
"We all know how pernicious drug culture can be" in some communities, Obama said, but mass incarceration also costs money that could fund schools.
In Camden, he noted approvingly, police officers were reaching out to the community in various ways, including by reading to schoolchildren.
"Everywhere, kids are kids. But there is an inherent goodness in them. They want to do the right thing. We just need to give them a chance."
Obama said Camden's approach of taking officers out of cars and putting them on foot patrols can help stop crimes before they start.
But urging a larger social commitment to poor communities such as Camden, he said those places should be embraced as "part of America, too."
(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer