Complaints of excessive police force plummet in Camden

Camden police cars on the street with lights flashing

Year-end crime statistics show a sharp decrease in homicides in Camden. (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

The number of excessive force complaints against police officers in Camden, New Jersey has ebbed in the last few years.

With about a month left in 2017, 15 complaints are on the books, roughly half of last year’s total.

In 2014, the total was 65 – the highest in a state that has its share of crime-ridden cities.

“Our relationship with the community has never been stronger,” said Lt. Kevin Lutz, a 15-year police veteran.

Lutz, who serves as deputy director of the Camden County College Police Academy, said the department began undergoing an important culture change in 2013 after budget cuts led to the county taking over operation of the city force.

At the heart of that change was a renewed focus on community policing. The goal: to improve residents’ perceptions of the department and how officers interact with people on a day-to-day basis.

The shift has been widely touted. In 2015, President Barack Obama praised Camden’s police department as a “symbol of promise for the nation.”

De-escalation training – training aimed at avoiding negative interactions that could make national headlines – has been a big part of that, said Lutz.

“First and foremost, placing a value on the sanctity of human life and really dialing in that moral compass of the officers from the onset,” Lutz explained. “And then providing them with the skills — verbal and physical and tactical — that they need to be successful.”

And the department’s use of body cameras has provided another layer of responsibility and accountability, he said.

In 2015, excessive force complaints dropped to 44. The following year, there were 31 complaints.

Barring a turbulent end to 2017, the year could end with fewer than 20 complaints.

John MacDonald, who teaches criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said the decline is dramatic – a sign of systematic change.

Still, excessive force is not the best or only barometer of police-community relations because most “very rarely” involve use of force – excessive or otherwise.

“It doesn’t tell you the common day-to-day interactions and how the community feels about those interactions with the police,” said MacDonald.

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