Live: First Public Impeachment Hearings

Listen now on WHYY-FM, watch on WHYY-TV or stream online.

Camden cameras help police, residents join forces against crime

Listen

Notorious as one of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. for several years running, Camden is working to change its image.

Following dissolution of the city’s police force last year, and implementation of a countywide force, the city’s crime rate has dipped by 30 percent.

Another component of the turnaround, authorities say, is an initiative allowing police — and residents — to keep a sharper eye on what’s going on in the city with the help of 121 cameras.

Those cameras are changing the way Camden fights crime.

“They get a panoramic 360-degree view based on our ‘Eye in the Sky’ cameras,” said Capt. Albert Handy of the Camden County Police, Metro Division. Vetted residents are given remote access to the cameras distributed throughout Camden as part of iCan — Interactive Community Alert Network.

“They can pinpoint the exact location and provide details about criminal activity on community corners through a portal monitored 24/7,” he said, describing it as “an innovative community watch tool that is totally anonymous, based on a user name they create themselves.”

Users, who can access the cameras from a laptop or mobile device, can choose from a drop-down menu of available cameras in their neighborhoods.

It’s what Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson calls “collaborative policing.”

“Nothing builds trust like human contact, and for a police department to effectively be able to work with its community, there has to be an enhanced interaction between the people charged with securing it and the people that live in that community,” Thomson said.

Chief Thomson is fond of quoting Sir Robert Peele, a 19th century British statesman credited with designing the concept of the modern police force.

“Peele said back in 1829 the people are the police and the police are the people, and if you try to do it any other way, it lends itself to a sense of being an occupying force,” he said.

“We thought, ‘What else can we do to try to get people more involved? Can we have our public integrated with the camera system that lies at the foundation of our crime fighting?

“So we developed iCan.”

Community reaction

Bryan Morton, president of the North Camden Little League, is a user of the system and a fan.

“Now we can have eyes on our kids even when we’re not there and get a response instantly, within 60 seconds, that a compliant is recognized, that someone is en route,” Morton said.

Morton, who believes that community collaboration with Metro Division officers is integral to shaping a safer future for Camden residents, said daily life in the city has change since that county-run force was launched.

“Before we had the opportunity to partner with Metro in North Camden, this park was a haven for all kinds of bad behavior — drugs, prostitution,” he said. “Having Metro gave us the ability to police our own community, which is not possible without knowing that we have ‘big brother’ at Metro.”

The idea of “big brother” keeping watch doesn’t faze most residents, said Thomson, who said he has not heard complaints.

“More often, at community meetings, I have to explain why there isn’t a camera in their neighborhood,” he said.

However, Camden County NAACP Director Kelly Francis is skeptical of the new technology’s effectiveness. While crime rates are down, Francis said he questions if surveillance cameras would deter murder.

“I haven’t owned a car in 10 years,” he said. “I walk everywhere, I see a lot of things folks don;t see, and I can’t see any change.

“I look at homicides,” he continued. “Homicides tell me what’s happening, and those homicide numbers are still maintaining as they have over the years.”

In 2012, a record number of people were slain in Camden — 24 were killed from January through May. Last year, there were 20, and this year, 16.

But the brazenness of much of the crime in Camden, such as the murder in April of 15-year-old Troy Anderson in broad daylight, indicates the city has a long way to go before losing its reputation for danger.

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

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.