Camden residents: City not a model for defunding police

A coalition of Camden residents is pushing back against the narrative that the city is a model for reimagining police departments in the U.S.

Camden police cars on the street with lights flashing

Camden police (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

When protesters began to push for the defunding and reorganization of municipal police departments, and the Minneapolis City Council pledged to disband its police, national attention turned to Camden, New Jersey, whose police department was dissolved and reorganized in 2013.

Not so fast, say some residents.

The Camden, We Choose Coalition held a press conference downtown Monday to explain that the police department was not dismantled according to community needs, but rather forcibly taken over by the state of New Jersey, following deep budget cuts in which the city laid off nearly half of its police force in 2011.

The city police force was replaced by a county-operated department in 2013. Longtime city activists say the result was an increased police presence by majority white officers in a city that is more than 90% Black and Latino. The county does not require its metro police officers to reside within Camden city limits.

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Activists petitioned and sued Camden City Council over the county takeover of the police, to which the Council counter-sued. Later the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the activists, but by then the county police force was already in place.

“You did not engage the community. The community was not engaged. That is a myth,” said Reverend Ojii BaBa Madi, a coalition member and minister at Asbury Community Church. “If we were engaged, why would the people of Camden sue the city? They sued the city so that there would be actual community engagement.”

They say that police presence has increased in the new developments along the city’s riverfront, and that neighborhoods with fewer economic advantages have not benefited from the county takeover.

Protesters on Monday demanded that the police be returned to city control, that officers be required to reside within Camden, and for the establishment of a community-watch group with voting power.

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