Increased police presence around Camden schools a short-term plan, officials say

Camden’s current plan to increase police presence at schools is short-term, as officials talk about what to do for next school year.

Camden police cars on the street with lights flashing

Camden police (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Shortly after Tuesday’s school shooting in Texas, Camden County Police Chief Gabe Rodriguez went to social media to express heartbreak, send condolences, and notify parents in Camden that there will be an additional presence of officers at schools including patrols around campuses.

He said that the initial announcement was to put parents and educators at ease.

Two days later, more details were given on how the department would work with the Camden County sheriff and prosecutor’s offices to make sure schools are protected.

“We’re going to be covering a majority of the schools,” he said. “But some of the smaller schools that are kind of in areas where we normally don’t have patrols is where we’ll rely on the sheriff’s department and the prosecutor’s office to assist us with that coverage.”

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The increased coverage will be in place for the rest of the school year, which is currently scheduled for June 24.

Dr. Nusret Sahin, associate criminal justice professor at Stockton University, said increased police presence is a needed quick response to address the public’s concerns.

“I believe it’s important to have these type of enhancements in police patrols around schools to at least address public concerns and parents’ concerns,” he said.

Having more officers and understanding police protocols are not a bad thing, said Dr. Jeffrey Ian Ross, criminologist and professor at the University of Baltimore.

“The biggest impact that it’s going to have is providing parents, teachers, and administrators a sense of comfort, decrease their fear and give them physical evidence that the police are trying to do something about this challenge,” he said, adding that it won’t “make a major difference.”

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Rodriguez disagrees that the increased presence won’t make a major impact, adding that the department has strong ties with the Camden community.

“If there is a kid online talking about shooting up a school, our community’s going to contact us,” he said. “We’ve gotten those individuals the help that they needed through social services or through some kind of mental health facilities. And we’ve put stops to several of those.”

Rodriguez adds that officers have already had a presence at schools under his watch.

“I’ve implemented several programs where we go to the schools, read to kids, we go to school and play dodgeball; this is nothing new,” he said. “We’re going to be increasing that presence.”

Sahin praised Camden’s idea of adding police presence “in a good way.”

“Not to just show off on schools and brandishing weapons or being there with heavy equipment,” he said. “But be there just to show them their support from a law enforcement side.”

At the same time, Sahin says a long-term solution needs to be addressed. He adds that schools, cities, and counties may need to take some extra measures and use the technology that is currently available.

“They can use artificial intelligence software that are combined with CCTV cameras, maybe, for instance, to detect if anyone is approaching the school or that’s suspicious. They may have locked down systems, they may lock up classrooms when you hit a button, so that the kids will be kept safe in the school,” he said.

Ross said that law enforcement should encourage schools to be “hardening” buildings better; balancing the need to control access into a school building and protecting everyone inside “in a safe manner.”

“I do believe that having better access controls where bags [backpacks, students, and visitors] are searched so that they can’t bring a gun into the school,” he said, adding that holding regular safety training sessions is also important.

Rodriguez said that he is in talks with State District School Superintendent Katrina McCombs on a security plan for next year, including how officers can be present. The Camden City School District does not have school resource officers in buildings.

He adds that mental health is needed, saying that “side of the house is what needs to be strengthened up the most.” But gun control is needed, he said, adding more layers are needed on New Jersey’s strict gun laws.

“I believe wholeheartedly that if you’re applying for a weapon, there should be some kind of screening you go through as well.” Rodriguez said. “I do believe that there are some people that have the right to bear arms, but not everyone. And we, we need to do a better job identifying who those folks are.”

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