Camden ‘could do better,’ city official says of complaints over excessive police force

 Camden County police patrol the city in 2013. (AP file photo)

Camden County police patrol the city in 2013. (AP file photo)

A review of police records in New Jersey has found Camden has more complaints about excessive force by police than any other municipality in the state in 2014.

County spokesman Dan Keashen said Monday that allegations of excessive force from last year – 65 – need to be presented within a larger context.

“We’ve also had 245 officers assaulted over that time. We’ve had almost 4,000 calls for a male with a gun in which officers went out and made 500 arrests to take illegal guns off the street,” Keashen said.

“But listen, we could do better. We know we’re going to do better,” he said. “Ultimately, our officers are charged to be guardians, and they’re meeting that mission statement every day in Camden.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

At the same time, the city has witnessed a drop in violent crime ever since the county took over the city’s police force two years ago.

But it’s alarming that the police department dismissed 44 of the 65 complaints, said Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

The remaining cases are still under review.

The Camden County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment for this story.

It’s normal that not every complaint would trigger a criminal indictment from Camden prosecutors, but what seems abnormal, Ofer said, is that none of the complaints even warranted a personnel action, such as a demotion or reprimand.

“We find it hard to believe that every single person who filed an excessive-force complaint was wrong.” Ofer said.

Community policing in Camden has won plaudits from the likes of Gov. Chris Christie and federal officials.

Officers there have at times taken community engagement to an extreme: reading books to kindergarten kids and giving out free ice cream to residents.

“The Camden police department right now is putting itself out as a model of community policing, as if somehow it’s a civil rights utopia of community policing where there are no concerns,” Ofer said.

“It seems like there’s a practice where the Camden police department is very comfortable with releasing data that supports its claims. But whenever data is released that casts shadows on those claims, it’s immediately dismissed as an exaggeration.”

Keashen said complaints build as the department grows its force. The last time the force was as big as it is now, in 2004, there were almost double the number of complaints witnessed last year.

To that, Ofer responded: “To me, it sounds like it’s a race to the bottom. The question is, ‘Is the Camden police department as bad as it used to be?’ And that’s not the right question to ask.”

Keashen said police have held their fire in nearly 4,000 incidents, something praised recently by Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson.

“I don’t think there’s any police department in the country that is going to be happy with the number of complaints,” Keashen said. “But we’re also working to reduce those complaints.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal