The Camden Way

All direction of public opinion and humor must originate in a few.

Edmund Burke

Late last spring, as the protests after the death of George Floyd gained momentum, politicians in the Twin Cities and elsewhere began calling to defund or disband police forces across the country. For a few days, calls went out to follow “the Camden Way,” by which was meant disbanding the entire police department. Almost as soon as it started, though, mentions of the Camden experiment stopped. And that’s too bad, because there are useful lessons there.

In the distant past when I was a boy, my father worked for Campbell Soup in Camden, NJ. Even then, the city was slowly sinking into the same morass that other industrial cities – Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh – were in. Crime, grime and a feeling of tired neglect were my impressions of the town at the time.

By 2012, the city’s population was only 60% of its high water mark in the ‘50’s. There were ~2000 violent crimes that year (among the highest per capita in the nation), including 67 homicides; and drugs were openly bought and sold in the city’s streets. The police force was considered to be one of the most corrupt in the nation, its officers known for both their brutality and their high absenteeism. They were represented by a powerful union that had won for them large benefit packages, but also had blocked meaningful reform. Their general approach to crime was reactive – sitting in their precincts waiting for something to happen, and then going to the scene of the crime and busting a few heads.

Scott Thomson, the police chief at the time and a Camden native, believed there was a better way. He believed – and believes – in community policing. He wanted his officers to be out in the neighborhoods, getting to know the residents, playing stickball with the kids in the streets. But he couldn’t do that with the force he had available. There weren’t enough police officers to cover the entire city. At the time, “austerity” was the watchword for all of New Jersey – there simply wasn’t any money for Thomson to hire additional officers to fill the shortfall. And even if he could, the contract with the union limited officers’ ability to get out into the streets.

Thomson’s first tried to negotiate a more flexible contract with the policemen’s union. He failed. At his urging, the city government then disbanded the entire municipal police department. From that point onward, city policing was to be carried out by a newly formed county police department, under Thomson’s leadership. Even though the pay and benefits were less, 2,000 applied for the 400 positions on the force.

Residents saw immediate changes. Officers were out in the neighborhoods much more. New officers were “encouraged” to knock on doors, introducing themselves and asking residents for suggestions about how the department could do a better job. The drug trade did not disappear, but was driven underground. The mindset of police officers was transformed from “warrior” to “guardian.” The emphasis shifted from making arrests to making residents feel safe. The police sponsored ice cream trucks, and hosted block parties and barbeques. As the Catholic bishop of Camden said, Thomson ushered in an ethos of respect for residents.

The change has resulted in a substantial drop in crime, especially violent crime. From 2012 to 2019, the number of homicides fell by ~60% – from 67 to 24. Even with the turmoil of 2020, it was roughly the same – 23. Total violent crimes dropped by almost 50% over that same eight-year period. Excessive force complaints decreased by 95% (only 3 last year).

But still there are critics. They note that crime has decreased but has not disappeared. Camden’s residents are still poor; far too many are unemployed; there are disparities in health care. In effect, the critics are saying to take money away from crimestopping to try to treat the community’s other social ills.

To me, these criticisms miss the mark. The safety of its citizens and their property is one of the essential foundations of a community. It is nearly impossible for the poor to climb out of poverty without this firm foundation – opportunity cannot flourish if safety languishes.

What Thomson achieved exemplifies Burke’s quote above. He and his peers in city government conceived a new – and demonstrably better – way to ensure the public’s safety. They molded public opinion so that residents would accept these tough decisions. And they made their conception a reality. Instead of sitting in their precincts waiting for crime to boil over, police officers are out in the community taking its temperature and turning down the heat however they can. Residents are part of the solution, not impediments. This is not perfection but certainly is progress.

And perhaps that progress is why mention of the Camden Way ended so quickly: it didn’t fit the Narrative. The narrative that the police are evil warriors wallowing in prejudice; that they are the cause of crime and not its solution; that our communities can flourish better without them. And that we thus need less, not more, policing.

An honest recounting of what Camden has achieved belies that narrative. Thomson, et al., changed “public opinion and humor” – the community’s view of the police – not through less but through more – and more effective – policing. Those cities that have tried the other way – defunding the police – have had more crime and less safety.

And indications are that at least some of these formerly flourishing communities – Portland, Seattle – are already suffering, as those who can – leave. Small business owners, in particular – those who buy the uniforms for Little League, who display signs for local events, whose coffee houses and restaurants are where the community’s sense of itself are nurtured – are leaving, eroding the community’s tax base for certain, but also taking with them important parts of the community’s heart and soul. The coming days will be the ultimate test of the resilience of these communities, let us hope they can heal their wounds and regain their vitality.

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