Acting as guardians not warriors, Camden police defuse potentially deadly encounter

 Camden police officers make a stop. (Brad Larrison/ NewsWorks file photo)

Camden police officers make a stop. (Brad Larrison/ NewsWorks file photo)

Homicides in Camden have soared this year, up by 28 percent in the first nine months of 2016 compared with 2015. Yet overall crime is down about 3 percent; the rates of aggravated assaults and robberies are lower than last year.

But the statistics don’t tell the whole story in this long-struggling city across the bridge from Philadelphia. The police department has been through big changes in the past few years, including dramatic efforts to change the department’s culture.

Those departmental changes may have influenced an incident last year that bears striking similarities to a fatal police shooting of a teen in Chicago that touched off months of protests there.

Listen to the story below.

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Officer CaBria Davis is standing in downtown Camden, outside the Crown Fried Chicken restaurant. This was the site, about a year ago, of an incident that could have changed her life dramatically. There stood 48-year-old Bryan Garrett, just outside the Crown Fried at the busy corner of Broadway and Mickle. He was waving a knife. Davis, a friendly woman who grew up in Camden, knows its dangers. And she was one of several officers to show up on the scene in the heart of the city. He’d just threatened to kill someone inside the restaurant.

The call over police radio that November evening warned: “Broadway and Mickle, Crown Fried, man with a knife in his hand.”

Officer Chris Devlin was there that night too. He says when he climbed out of his patrol vehicle, he could tell the man wielding the knife wasn’t mentally stable. “His eyes were bugged out of his head.” Devlin warns that given the man’s erratic behavior police could have used deadly force. “That’s always a last resort for us and it’s not something that we like to jump to right away, but one of my concerns and I know some of the officers officers, was, ‘There’s people in these stores. If he turns and goes into these stores with these people and that knife, then we have a hostage situation.”

Devlin often patrols on foot. Since Camden’s old force disbanded in 2012, and was replaced by this new county force, everybody just calls it ‘Metro,’ long-time residents can’t get over how often they see Metro out of their cars, walking, talking to neighbors. No warrants to serve, just chatting. This is astonishing in a city where, a few years ago, police stopped showing up at traffic accidents without injuries because there just weren’t enough cops. Then in May 2013, the city started a new police force. In May of 2015 the Camden Police Chief got a personal shout-out from President Barack Obama, during a visit he made to Camden to tout the early success of the new Metro force. The stats bore that out: murders cut in half over two years, violent crime down a quarter. Those were impressive numbers and in Camden it felt remarkable.

But to Police Chief Scott Thomson, statistics aren’t even the most important signs of policing success. “What I tell my officers is, ‘I don’t care how many tickets you’re writing when you’re out there. What I want to see in your area of responsibility when I drive down the street is I wanna see little kids playing in front of their house, I want to see people sitting on their front steps.'”

Famous images from Ferguson, Missouri of police armed to the teeth battling citizens in the streets, and clashes in other cities, they bothered the Chief and caused him to change the culture within his own department. “Some of the progress that we think we have made particularly in our most challenged communities and our communities of color over the last three decades, it gave us a moment of pause in which, maybe we haven’t made as much progress as we think we have made.”

Instead of cracking down hard and trying to arrest his way out of arrest his way out of the city’s massive crime problem, the chief’s implemented a program called ethical protector. “Our objective is just to ensure that the officer goes home at the end of their shift, but that everybody goes home and is able to be returned to their loved one. Our officers know that they are not judge, jury or executioner. They are there to stabilize situations and to help people. We are guardians, we are not warriors.”

Back outside the Crown Fried Chicken, that November night, Davis was about to put that ethical protector training to use when it matters the most, the moment of crisis. “That training, it gives you a level of confidence. Because it’s like, OK, it forces you to take a step back mentally and looks at the situation and figure out what the best possible approach is and what’s the safest approach.”

From video footage provided by the police department you can see and hear the tense confrontation. Devlin is right behind the man with the knife, walking the streets of Camden, and threatening to use his Taser if the man doesn’t drop the knife. Unlike officers in other cities whose crisis-moment choices have resulted in headlines, the Camden officers do not pull their guns. The weird thing about watching video from the tension-filled incident is how slowly, almost leisurely it all plays out. The man with the knife is followed and flanked by police officers.

Devlin: “This whole time we’re just talking to him, trying to get him to drop the knife, trying to put people out of harm’s way. It’s nerve-wracking because you don’t know what’s going to happen.,”

About two blocks in, Devlin fires his Taser. But it doesn’t penetrate the man’s thick jacket. As the officer points out, once you fire a Taser you’re physically connected to whomever you fired the taser at. So Devlin is just a few feet away from the man with the knife and he’s physically connected to him. He’s forced to weave back and forth, dodging cars and trees, following the man with the knife.

Devlin says it feels like you’re stuck in time. “You just want to come to an end.”

Nearly six minutes into the video, things turn chaotic. The video shows blurred images of bodies and then the man drops the knife. You can hear Devlin yelling on the tape. He says all of the sudden the man dropped the knife. “We heard it hit the ground and immediately we took him to the ground and put him in handcuffs.” He admits the police incident could have ended very differently. “It could have ended badly but, you know, everyone kept their calm and kept poise.”

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