Today’s a big day for Camden, New Jersey. The city that has struggled with crime for decades and fought to rehire police officers after budget cuts spurred layoffs has a new police force. The city’s police department has been replaced with a special Metro Division of a new county-run force.
The new cops got to work in Camden’s Yorkship neighborhood earlier this week, fanning out from Yorkship Square and going door-to-door on foot knocking on doors. By leaving their cruisers behind, they are hoping to draw attention.
Two officers introduce themselves to one man, tell him they’ll be patrolling the area and ask him if he has any concerns to share with them. David Martinez tells the police he’s just glad to see them out in his neighborhood. Martinez stays standing in his doorway wearing green Philadelphia Eagles slippers after the police move on to the next house.
“I’m born and raised here,” he said. “I’ve seen this place go through all kinds of changes and Camden right now is probably the worst its been in the 55 years.” Martinez says residents feel helpless. “It becomes a 24/7 thing looking over your shoulder all the time. It requires a whole lot of faith to stay living in Camden.”
Martinez says there’s no peace here — no chance to relax on the front porch and enjoy a nice cool breeze. Shootings and drug activity he says, are a staple of life. He says he stays because his family’s here.
The new county-run force does not have to live by police union contract that governed Camden’s now defunct department. City officials say that frees them up to put more officers on the street patrolling while spending about the same money. The State of New Jersey has kicked in a few million dollars to help pay some of the transition expenses.
Martinez says Camden police have tried hard over the years and he believes a larger, more visible force will make a difference for Camden residents. By increasing their numbers and really pounding the pavement, the new Camden police hope not just to catch criminals, but to prevent crime. Simple door-to-door meetings, they say, can help build relationships and get residents to act as their eyes and ears.
Down the block, kids passing by on the way home from school see all the officers, and assume the worst. Like 17 year old Shakira Roberts, who is surprised to learn nothing bad happened. She says she saw all the police and just guessed it was “something like drug-related most likely. That’s what the usual problem is. ” She says it’s dangerous here.
Standing next to her, 15 year old Haashim Smith agrees and says the neighborhood needs help. “I think these cops will improve Camden,” he said.
While police step up to front doors in pairs, Denise Bacchues watches from the sidewalk. She worked in the old Camden police department for 16 years and says the new force already feels different.
“I don’t think they would have been able to get the reaction or the response with the old department,” said Bacchues. “So I’m glad they had to redevelop the department. It’s almost like what we’ve been praying for for years: to get and get in touch with the citizens. It’s the most important part.”
Bacchues was born and raised here and knows this city. People stop to say “hi” to her with a smile. She says she wants to move back, but still needs to convince her husband. Like many, she says he’s worried about the violence in Camden. Bacchues and other veteran officers make up the nucleus of the new force. She says she’s ready to offer all the help she can to guide the new cops.
“The only challenges for them is they’re going to have a lot of people resistant because they’re different – from different townships,” she said. “But I think they’ll work out well. Because you can even see how people are just saying, ‘I’m just so glad that you’re here!'”
The head of the Camden Fraternal Order of Police, John Williamson insists the city will not be safer under the new force and points out that the transition is still the subject of ongoing litigation. He says unions everywhere should be concerned about the dismantling of the city’s department. Williamson says he’s heard some residents don’t like the police coming door to door asking questions.
Back in Yorkship Square, two new Camden cops head up to a house with a “For Sale” sign out front. One of them, former Wildwood law officer Daniella Smara says she came to Camden because she wanted a challenge. “I thought this was a great opportunity you know putting this out there for younger officers who want to learn and put themselves out there in a city that really needs help.”
The new job’s a big change from helping tourists find their way around the shore. Smara says she wasn’t intimidated at the idea of policing Camden, but she says her family isn’t happy.
Standing beside her is fellow former Wildwood officer turned Camden cop Michael Shirk. “I like to work with kids and keep them safe and work with people all throughout the community,” he said. “It was also a great experience for me that I might not be able to see in other departments. You always hear about crimes in Camden whereas in other departments they’re not as busy.”
Shirk, who lives nearby in Audubon, knows crime is a major reason that when city residents start earning more money, they often move out of the first chance they get.
Last year Camden set a new record with 67 homicides, the worst since 1995.
Walking home with his mom and twin sister, 7-year-old Josh Jordan says he hopes the city gets better.
“My school is a good school. They have good teachers and good friends and I really don’t want to move. I want to stay with my school and my good friends.”
His mom says she’s considering moving the family out of Camden, but is waiting to see if the new police can make it safer.