Just months before the Camden County Police Department went into service 10 years ago, the City of Camden was again listed as one of the most dangerous cities in America. A new homicide record was reached, and the city was broke.
“If I recall, back in 2010, we had an $8 million deficit with six months left on that particular budget,” said former mayor Dana Redd, who said the 2011 fiscal year, which she deemed as “pivotal,” saw an even bigger budget hole. A $26.5 million deficit led to half of the city police department being laid off, along with dozens of firefighters and some civilian workers.
Redd said her administration worked closely with then-Gov. Chris Christie and others to secure grants to rehire everyone, with the caveat that a more sustainable solution be sought.
“The underlying story is the fiscal crisis really necessitated the need to come up with an innovative model to provide for the public safety of our citizens,” Redd added.
That solution, the county police department, celebrated 10 years of service on Monday at the North Camden Community Center. The celebration included remarks from officials and a dodgeball game with students from Molina Elementary School that some officers participated in. It’s an example of the department’s ongoing community outreach efforts.
Getting to this point was not easy.
Though “county” is in the name, the department’s jurisdiction was confined to the city after police chiefs in the county expressed they wanted nothing to do with it. The union representing police officers that were about to find themselves searching for work threatened to sue.
Even as the new officers were getting ready to take control, there were doubts that they would be ready to take on a city with many challenges.
At Monday’s ceremony, Camden County Sheriff Whip Wilson brought a memo he wrote in 2012, from when he was an assemblyman, with “a bunch of suggestions and questions,” They included what will happen to civilian employees, like janitors and secretaries, and whether pending lawsuits would transfer to the county. He also suggested officers be trained in culture, diversity, and community sensitivity.
Wilson, who was originally against the dissolution of the police department, said he was happy to support the anniversary and “the progress being made.”
The progress made
Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen said the department’s success “isn’t by accident,”
“We’re seeing a reduction in crime because our police force is one that represents our community,” he said.
The mayor also noted that the department is more reflective of the city’s majority Black and brown community, including at the top of the agency. Gabe Rodriguez is the department’s first Latino police chief. Janelle Simpson is the first Latina and first woman in city history to serve as deputy police chief. Both Rodriguez and Simpson are Camden natives.
Officials said the department is held as a national model for police reform. This was especially true in the summer of 2020, when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police offer while being arrested.
But some residents have pushed back against that narrative.
In 2020, the Camden, We Choose Coalition told reporters at a press conference “don’t believe the hype,” adding Camden’s former police department was dismantled based on budget and not community need.
Camden County Commissioner Director Lou Cappelli countered that “it’s not hype” and that the crime numbers speak for themselves.
“More important than the numbers, the residents speak for it,” he said. “When you talk to the residents of the city today, they mark the difference. They know we’re not perfect yet, but they have seen a very distinct difference and now trust this department.”
One of those residents who supported the change is Tameeka Mason, a North Camden resident who recalled her neighborhood being “a very, very challenging place to live” prior to the start of the county police department.
“Kids weren’t able to play outside and families weren’t able to do their engaging out in the community either, she said, adding there was a distrust with the city police department.
Mason said she was at a point where she thought a change was needed and she wanted to be part of it. She adds that tangible change has taken place.
“We definitely have more trust in the community,” she said. “There’s definitely more partnerships with the police department as well.”