One of the few bright spots over the past week was Camden, NJ where instead of beating protesters the police joined them.A decade ago Camden had a terrible crime rate and a notoriously ineffective police force; among other things, in 2012 the city payed out more than $3.5 million to settle 88 lawsuits for police misconduct. But in 2013 the whole city-run force was disbanded, which abrogated the union contract, and replaced by a new county-run force.
Since then the crime rate has fallen by much more than the national average and the reputation of the police has soared. The chief, J. Scott Thompson, credits a switch to community policing:
That meant focusing on rebuilding trust between the community and their officers.Part of the approach is to settle most traffic stops with a warning rather than a ticket:
“For us to make the neighborhood look and feel the way everyone wanted it to, it wasn’t going to be achieved by having a police officer with a helmet and a shotgun standing on a corner,” Thomson said. Now, he wants his officers “to identify more with being in the Peace Corps than being in the Special Forces.”
A conversation with Thomson about community policing is likely to involve many such catchy maxims. “Destabilized communities,” he told me, “need guardians, not warriors.” He explained the “Back to the Future Paradox”—use technology wisely, but pair it with regular-old “Bobbies on the street.” And he stressed the idea that public safety is about access to social services, economic rejuvenation, and good schools, not just cops: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
It’s policing turned poetry, and his officers, too, have internalized it in their training. “The old police mantra was make it home safely,” Camden police officer Tyrell Bagby told the New York Times in April. “Now we’re being taught not only should we make it home safely, but so should the victim and the suspect.”
“Handing a $250 ticket to someone who is making $13,000 a year” — around the per capita income in the city — “can be life altering,” Chief Thomson said in an interview last year, noting that it can make car insurance unaffordable or result in the loss of a driver’s license. “Taxing a poor community is not going to make it stronger.”This long NY Times piece from 2017 is fascinating in what it shows about the on-the-ground effects of a serious leadership commitment to reducing violence. All officers receive training in de-escalation, with that mantra that the suspect should go home alive, too. You can see this in practice in a remarkable video of officers carefully cordoning off a deranged-looking man with a knife and talking to him until he surrenders it.
One of the chief's standing orders is that if officers do shoot somebody, they should transport him to the hospital in their cruisers rather than waiting for an ambulance. It strikes me that this might not always be the best medical advice, but as a symbol of treating everyone as a human life it might still be a good idea.
The broken relationships between American cities and their police forces is an old problem with deep roots, and fixing it won't be easy, but Camden shows that a lot of progress can be made with the right leadership.