Is Camden a model for police reform? Activists who live there don't think so

The most dangerous city in the U.S. dissolved its police; crime plummeted. Some say the truth is more complicated

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published July 3, 2020 12:00PM (EDT)

Community members take part in a Black Lives Matter protest, organized by Black Men Rising, in Camden, NJ on June 13, 2020.  (Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Community members take part in a Black Lives Matter protest, organized by Black Men Rising, in Camden, NJ on June 13, 2020. (Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Many police reformers have pointed to Camden, New Jersey, as a model for overhauling police departments around the nation in response to protests over police killings of unarmed Black people. But unlike the current community-based initiatives seen in many cities after the George Floyd killing, Camden's decision to dismantle its police was partly prompted by Republican budget cuts — and the results have been more complicated than its proponents admit.

As Black Lives Matter protesters call to reallocate police budgets to social services, which the Minneapolis City Council has vowed to do, and build relationships with the communities the departments serve, Camden has been touted as a success story after dissolving its city police department in 2013. More recently, Camden Police Chief Joseph Wysocki drew praise for marching alongside protesters during the Floyd protests. Former President Barack Obama praised the city's reforms in 2015, calling it a "symbol of promise for the nation."

But some of the city's Black residents disagree, arguing that the city of roughly 75,000 across the Delaware River from Philadelphia does not provide a viable model for the kind of reform protesters seek.

"Camden's not a model because the residents had nothing to do with this, had no say in this whatsoever," Keith Benson, the head of the city's teachers' union, told Salon in an interview. "It's not a model of what's going on in some other places, like Minneapolis, where it looks from here that they're responding to what the residents' demands are."

The police reboot remains a politically divisive issue in Camden, even as it's touted as a model for reform by its advocates.

The reforms were prompted when Camden was forced to lay off half of its police department after Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who later advocated for the dissolution of the Camden police force, drastically slashed state aid to the struggling city. Murders hit a record high after the layoffs and the city police department was scrapped and replaced with a county-run department that received increased taxpayer funding and tens of millions in federal grants. Because the move involved busting the police union, a frequent opponent of meaningful reforms, the new department was able to hire cops at lower wages. Despite being cited as a model for "defunding the police," the department now has as many cops as it did before the budget cut.

The major architects of these  reforms argue that the police reboot has been a success.

"All levels of government and local community leaders came together to reimagine what policing could look like in Camden," Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., who pushed the reform along with his brother, South Jersey power broker George Norcross, said in a statement to Salon. "We reinvested in our communities and committed to continuous reviews of policing standards and policies. Following Camden's police reform, the city has not only seen a significant drop in crime, including a 63% decrease in murders, but the city has also seen an incredible relationship evolve between members of our community and law enforcement. Officers have become part of the fabric of our community. Change and reform are not easy – but South Jersey knows, they are possible."

Camden ranked as the most dangerous city in America in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013. The city also had a problem with bad cops. There were dozens of excessive force complaints per year, but little was done in response. In 2010, five officers were charged with planting evidence, fabrication and perjury, leading courts to overturn the convictions of 88 people arrested by those officers.

In 2012, city, county and state leaders decided to dismantle the entire department and replace it with a county police department focused on "community-oriented policing." Since 2014, murders have fallen by 72%, the homicide clearance rate rose from 16% to 80%, and the number of excessive force complaints dropped from 65 to three, according to data provided by Camden County.

Benson argued that the numbers were inflated because of the murder spike that came after the budget cuts. Despite the drop, the city still ranks as the 10th most dangerous city in America and the most dangerous city in New Jersey

"Except for a few outlier years, most recently in 2012, Camden has reverted to a range of 20 to 30 homicides per year, even with the fully staffed CCPD," he said.

Camden County Executive Louis Cappelli, another architect of the police reboot, told Salon that residents in the city undoubtedly feel safer than they did under the previous department.

"The crime rate has dropped drastically," he said. "There were thousands of fewer crime victims on a yearly basis. Murder rate is down 70%. And many residents of the city feel a lot safer than they did seven years ago. So public safety is clearly improving in Camden City and neighborhoods are much safer."

"The successes are indisputable," he argued.

Benson disputed the successes touted by Cappelli.  

"Crime rates everywhere are falling," he told Salon. "The reason why Paterson's crime rate has dropped, Newark's crime has dropped, it has nothing to do with the Camden County Police Force, nothing. And violent crime all over the country has gone down, certainly over the last two decades. So the reality is that these are things that have nothing to do with the changing of police force in Camden."

In truth, although crime has fallen in other parts of New Jersey and across the nation, Camden's decline has been far steeper.

After the budget cuts, Norcross, Cappelli, Christie and then-Camden Mayor Dana Redd set out to dismantle the department.

"You had to change the underlying principles of the way police officers were being trained and taught, and the culture in the department," Christie told Politico. "The most effective way to do that was to start over."

The city council voted in 2012 to dissolve its police department but some residents pushed back, submitting a petition to stop it. Redd sued the residents to stop the petition. The case went to the courts but the city moved ahead with eliminating its police department and replacing it with one run by the county. The case ultimately reached the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2015, which voted 6-0 in favor of the residents, but it was too late. The city's department was long dissolved and the Camden County Police Department had existed for years.

Some members of the city's previous police force were rehired by the county, albeit without a union contract and with lower wages than they had before.

By reducing salaries, the police force was able to hire more cops, increasing the department size from 250 to 400, roughly the size of the Camden force before the 2010 layoffs.

Under the leadership of former Police Chief Scott Thomson, the department implemented a "community-oriented" policing model intended to improve the relationship between police and residents.

That model has been key to the reform's successes, Cappelli said.

"No. 1, when you have that trust between the communities and its police department, there's a lot more communication. That communication helps us to identify problem areas or problem individuals. It helps us to prevent crime and it also helps us to solve crimes once they've been committed," he said. "Secondly, because of the community policing, residents are back out on the streets. Ten years ago, residents were afraid to come out of their houses and the streets were governed and dictated by gang members and drug dealers. By having the residents out on the streets, they have taken the streets back from criminal elements."

Some of the city's residents disagree. Benson, who has taught in Camden public schools and at Rutgers University, said residents had little to do with the revamp.

"Gov. Christie, for his own political interests, because he had presidential aspirations, deliberately dismantled our police force because Camden was his guinea pig," he said. "I know why Lou Cappelli is telling the narrative that he's telling, because he's a guy who's enacted it. I know why Scott Thomson is telling the story that he's telling, because he was the police chief and he benefited exceedingly financially, based on the change that took place. So I know why they're telling the story. What I don't understand is why journalistic institutions or outfits are continuing to tell that story even though it's false."

Community policing has not been the success that Cappelli touts, Benson argued.

"They changed their approach today, versus how it was when they first got here, when it was really broken-windows-esque. So they can be more familiar and more friendly with the community but that does not necessarily mean that they've changed the attitude that Camden residents have toward them, or they actually had an impact where it dented crime," he said. "In the visible areas, like the central part along the business district, are they there? Yeah. Are cars patrolling? Absolutely. But in places where people live, are they walking up and down the street? Hell, no."

Benson also argued that one of the reasons behind the crime drop was the city's declining population, which has fallen by several thousand since the 2010 census.

"Correlation is not causation," Benson said. "If you reduce your city's population by thousands of people who are economically in desperate situations, your crime is going to go down. But the way I see things is that Camden is one of the last affordable places for people that do not make a whole lot of money. So people getting shipped out of the city is not a good thing from my perspective. I care about those folks who are really in financially tenuous positions."

The new county police department was part of the rebranding effort called "Camden Rising," the subject of Benson's recent book "Education Reform and Gentrification in the Age of #CamdenRising." He says the plan was "created by powerful non-Camden residents, aimed at attracting young, white professionals to move here."

"A major part of the rebranding of Camden had to do with really remaking who lives here. So a lot of folks, thousands of folks who lived in public housing or low-income housing, have been sent other places. So these folks no longer live in the city," he said. "There's whole blocks of North Camden that don't look the same and those people physically aren't there anymore, because that block's been bought up by a nonprofit or something like that. There was a block that was, like, a really high drug-traffic area. But if those people are physically not there, because there was no place for them to live anymore, how do we give credit to the Camden police for bringing crime down?"

Benson linked the decline in crime to the relocation of thousands from the most vulnerable parts of the city.

"There's other things that are going on inside the city that may impact crime, especially if you understand how tightly woven poverty is with crime, especially in terms of the drug trade and things like that," he said. "When you dispatch thousands of people, low-income folks, the most financially destitute folks in the city, and send them someplace else, it would stand to reason that crime would go down. But is that because of the Camden County police force? Hell, no."

Cappelli acknowledged that the city still faces "major challenges" when it comes to poverty.

"We still have some neighborhoods with deep pockets of poverty," he said. "And in those neighborhoods, it's tough to form the trust with the residents and the partnerships with residents that we enjoy in other parts of the city. So poverty remains a big challenge in certain neighborhoods."

Cappelli added that the department's use-of-force policy has been key in building community trust.

"It was developed with NYU and the NAACP. We also go to great lengths to train our officers in de-escalation techniques, so that there's a lot less use of force in our department that helps build the trust with the residents," he said. "As police departments are reformed or recreated, it's extremely important to listen to those who the department is serving. We do that on a constant basis. We did it from the beginning. You want to hear from your residents, what they're looking for in a police officer and what they're looking for in a public safety service, and incorporate those items into your hiring and policing practices."

Though the number of excessive force complaints has fallen, Benson said the city's residents are still overwhelmed by videos of police abuses.

"Police are still beating people," he said. "When somebody in Camden posts something on Facebook, a lot of folks in Camden see it… Has the attitude of the general Camden public changed with the police? No, because urban policing as an institution is a problem."

That problem, he said, is that urban policing has "taken on a function of raising revenue for municipal governments when funding has been cut off."

"Maybe it's less now," he said. "But it's certainly the feeling that you get when you encounter police officers, usually it's under a negative circumstance."

Thomson, the former police chief, said that he overhauled the department's internal performance system so that officers were no longer rewarded for the number of tickets they wrote or the number of arrests made.

"I don't want you to write tickets, I don't want you to lock anybody up," Thompson recalled telling officers in an interview with Politico.

The department has also faced criticism over the racial makeup of its force. Although people of color make up more than 95% of the city's population, they only make up 54% of the police force.

Cappelli said institutional racism was to blame.

"Because of the New Jersey Civil Service Commission's hiring requirements, we had difficulties hiring residents of the city in the department because of the civil service test that is required by that commission," he said. "So it's always been our intent to hire as many residents as possible, and also to promote minorities within the department. But the civil service process acts as an obstacle to us meeting those objectives."

Just one of the department's seven captains is Black.

"On numerous occasions, we have conditionally promoted a minority to superior officer positions. And when we do that on a conditional basis, that means that we can't make it a permanent promotion until the officer takes the civil service test," Cappelli said. "The civil service test is proven to be racially and culturally biased. And on numerous occasions, we've had to reverse the promotions because of the test results taken by the minority officers."

Kevin Barfield, the head of the Camden County NAACP chapter, said the department has also seen high turnover in its early years.

"It's hard to say that things are changing when you're having a revolving door of officers coming in," he told Politico. "And a lot of them are young. A lot of them are not really familiar with the community with which they serve."

Rann Miller, the head of the 21st Century Community Learning Center and a longtime Camden teacher, noted in an op-ed in Truthout that the police department is under the control of Camden County, which is majority white.

"This means that the residents of Camden no longer have any semblance of direct control of the officers who patrol their streets," he wrote. "White people in Camden County ultimately control how Black and Latinx residents are policed with their vote, without even living in the city of Camden. Unlike residents of the city of Camden, non-Camden residents of the county chose to opt out of participating in a county police force."

Cappelli disputed that characterization, arguing that the city's residents have a voice in how the police operate.

"That's not the case, because we have a partnership with the city of Camden government," he said. "So we don't do this blindly. We're in constant contact and communication with the governing body of Camden City. And the members of that governing body, who reflect the residents of the city, have a lot of say in our policing model and how we operate."

One thing the architects of the reboot and its critics agree on is that the Camden model is not a model for "defunding the police." If anything, Cappelli said, the drop in crime has been the result of more police, not less.

"We've added more police, we've invested in the department, and we've given our police officers the tools necessary to implement the model of community policing that we have. To me, it makes no sense to defund the police department. The No. 1 role of the government is to provide public safety," he said. "What's important from our model is the fact that it's based on community policing. And in that community policing, that means we are working on building the trust of residents and that we respect the sanctity of life. So if you start with that philosophy that you need the trust of your residents and you have to respect the sanctity of life, and you put that philosophy into a practice ... you're going to have a much more successful police department."

Cappelli pointed to a number of other investments the department has made to improve relations.

"We have invested in a smart manner. ... We've invested in technology, we've invested in training and we have invested in community policing," he said. "So it's not a time to take funds away from a department. It's time to invest smartly. And what we've done is we've leveraged our investment with nonprofits like the Camden County Opioid Addiction Task Force, with re-entry programs, with clergy and religious organizations, in order to help affect the way our community policing models."

But Benson said he has been frustrated by the media narrative touting these reforms as a model for other cities' reform efforts, both because of the way the reforms were forced on the city and because of the underlying problems that remain.

"I just want the story to be told accurately," he said. "It certainly is like the story has been repeated in a certain package in a certain way to where Cappelli and Scott Thomson are, 'We figured this stuff out.' Wrong. And I'm sitting there looking at this stuff that comes in the news, like, 'Y'all are freaking lying!'"

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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