The national spotlight has fallen on Camden, New Jersey. That city dissolved its police department in 2013 and replaced it with a countywide force. But the reasons why that happened are very different from why activists are now calling for similar moves in departments across the country.
Courier Post reporter Phaedra Trethan explains the financial crisis that led to the department’s overhaul, which, despite a lot of growing pains, has seen some positive results. And recently, as police and protesters clashed in Philadelphia, Camden cops marched side-by-side with residents to protest the killing of George Floyd.
On Camden’s struggles with violence
A lot of that is a byproduct of social issues like poverty and blight and the drug trade, which was vibrant for many years in Camden and thriving and out in the open in many for many years in Camden … Camden has had some real leadership challenges. They’ve had mayors who have been indicted and have gone to jail. They had a state senator who represented the city, who went to jail. And there was a long history of corruption and governmental dysfunction in the city.
On what led Camden to dissolve its police department in 2013
The simple answer is that it was a budget crunch. Camden had a severe budget deficit and was not getting the state aid that it thought it was going to get. And in 2011, they were forced to lay off hundreds of city employees. In 2011, they laid off 163 police officers, which was almost half of the police force.
The following year, that led to a spike in homicides. The city had an all-time record of 67 homicides, which was just a horrific year. And in 2013, they formed a Camden County Police Department, which was county-run, rather than something that was based in the city. And they were able to get rid of a lot of officers and then rehire what they thought was the best of the best. The ones that they wanted to retain and also recruit from a much wider pool of applicants to get the police department back up to its former staffing level. But that took a lot of time.
On what Camden’s community policing looks like
They’ve really worked hard since they formed as a county police department to engage with the community. They do things like bring ice cream trucks into the neighborhoods. They throw barbecues. Pre-pandemic, they would host outdoor movie nights in some of the parks. They’ve also gone to great lengths to train their officers in de-escalation techniques. So there’s been a real emphasis on trying to to train officers, to deal with people who are perhaps mentally ill, developmentally disabled, people struggling with addiction, people in struggling with homelessness. And they’ve also worked with some of the nonprofits throughout the city, including Joseph’s House, which is a homeless shelter, so that when officers do encounter people who are struggling with addiction, are mentally ill, are chronically homeless, they can help get those people services or get them assistance, rather than just throw some cuffs on them and stick ’em in a tank overnight.
On whether the changes in Camden have worked
When I speak with people in the city, when I speak with residents, they do overwhelmingly tell me that they feel safer, that the city is better. The city is getting better in terms of public safety. There are still pockets of of drug use. There are pockets of crime. There are neighborhoods that are still challenged.
One of the big concerns that I hear from residents is about outsiders who come into the city and use drugs and buy drugs. And I think that they don’t like having that presence in their neighborhoods, so they wish that the police would do more about that. They also there are also a lot of complaints about homeless people in the neighborhoods. But, you know, those are also social problems. Those are social problems that I’m not sure police are equipped to handle or really should handle.