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Camden Takes Drastic Measures to Combat Crime

New county police led by law-enforcement innovator will replace depleted city force.

camden cop
Credit: philly.com

On any given night in the most dangerous city in America, fewer than 12 police officers patrol the streets. In a city that is home to 77,000 of the nation’s poorest residents, municipal administrators in 2011 responded to drastic state funding cuts by laying off all but 220 personnel, then using grant money to incrementally rehire 40 of them.

The result? This city had the highest murder rate in its history last year, surpassing the previous record of 58 by nine homicides.

The city is Camden, where in a desperate attempt to unlock crime’s relentless stranglehold, elected officials are disbanding the 141-year-old police department and replacing it with a new Camden County force whose sole initial task will be to establish and operate a Camden metro division. The city and the state Department of Community Affairs will pay the county the entire cost of $63 million per year to run the division, using property taxes and transitional funds the state regularly sends down the Turnpike to aid the beleaguered municipality.

The annual cost is actually $2 million less than the city’s current police budget – a savings the county will achieve by slashing overtime costs and shift differentials while holding salaries at close to current levels.

However, questions linger over how much Gov. Chris Christie, who supports the handover, will continue to allot to sustain Camden, given that he’s publicly expressed a desire to reduce the amount the state pays every year to make up the gap between the city’s $150 million budget and its $23.5 million property tax levy.

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson will lead the force but consultant Jose Cordero, who has more than two decades’ experience as a New York City inspector, East Orange police director and New Jersey State Director of Law Enforcement, is designing it.

Using $7.5 million in dedicated start-up funds from the Community Affairs Department and drug forfeiture funds from the state attorney general’s office, plus the $20,000 per month freeholders are paying him with forfeiture funds from the county prosecutor’s office, Cordero will spend the next three months finishing up blueprints. His work force will include 401 police personnel and approximately 100 civilians and he says he will employ radical though proven policing strategies he devised in past posts.

The plan has been most heavily criticized by the city’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), who call it a union-busting move. After more than three months of negotiations, the FOP has until January 31 to inform city and county brass if it will agree to its latest proposal, which calls for the union to accept severe cuts to fringe benefits and dismiss pending lawsuits against the takeover in exchange for three main concessions from the county: acknowledgement of seniority for city officers who join the county force, recognition of the FOP as their bargaining agent, and a promise to hire more than 49 percent of current city cops who apply. Although FOP President John Williamson has refused to seek a job with the county, 200 city officers who will be laid off as of April 30 have joined 800 outside applicants to do just that.

The move has also proven somewhat unpopular in the rest of Camden County, where taxpayers and elected officials voice skepticism that freeholders can create the department without any operating money from them.

Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli concedes that because of the 2 percent cap on property-tax growth statewide, municipalities will likely face higher taxes and penalties for refusing to participate in shared-service agreements such as regional police forces – as Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) proposes in a bill that’s pending Assembly approval.

But Cappelli promises that for now county residents will not fund any part of the new force. He adds that the metro division will in fact benefit the county in at least two ways: as county officers, metro division units will be able to help make arrests and solve crimes outside Camden, especially when they involve the heavy flow of suburban drug buyers into the city, and the force will free up the homicide unit of the county prosecutor’s office, which had been temporarily operating exclusively as Camden’s detective unit, to do its job investigating crimes in all 37 of its constituent municipalities.

The Camden County Police Chiefs Association, however, is not convinced. In 2011, it pulled out of negotiations over the creation of the countywide force, claiming Cappelli and his allies were organizing the force without their input. So the county department is plunging ahead without participation from any locality outside Camden City. As it takes shape in time for a planned launch this April or May, Cordero is readying the department to apply the pioneering predictive technology and community engagement approach that made East Orange, where he served two nonconsecutive terms as police director, an international model for lowering crime.

When Cordero left East Orange the first time, in 2008, he took his crime-fighting philosophies to the state police, where he taught New Jersey’s municipalities how to implement them on the local level. One of those municipalities was Camden, where shootings and killings dropped by 30 percent in 2009 and by an even higher rate in 2010, then skyrocketed in the wake of the sweeping layoffs of 2011.

Now, Cordero intends to reinstate his approach in South Jersey’s largest city. But can he duplicate his success in a locale where the per-capita murder rate is more than double that of Third World countries Sudan and Somalia? Cappelli answers with an emphatic yes.

“There’s not a doubt we’ll be successful,” he said. “We’re providing the resources necessary to change the public safety paradigm in the City of Camden.”

Cordero’s model reduced overall crime in East Orange, a city of 70,000 that once led the state in crime, by almost 75 percent during his tenure and continues to draw attention from law- enforcement agencies as nearby as Atlantic City and as far away as Australia and China.

Hailing it as an approach that does nothing less than upend the entire culture of policing in the agencies that adopt it, advocates say it changed East Orange from a place where frightened residents criticized police for their failure to keep their neighborhood streets safe enough for even a short walk to the store or a friendly chat on the front porch, to one where homeowners and renters feel comfortable on their sidewalks and help police with their work.

The change began, according to Cordero, when he retrained his force to listen closely lto the community’s stated needs. He and his subordinates, who were each assigned to specific wards, attended countless business, civic and religious meetings to get to know residents on an individual level and find out where they thought the biggest – and sometimes smallest, though hardly less important on a daily basis – problems lay.

Cops were assigned to those trouble spots and maintained such a consistent presence that most of the city’s open-air drug markets either dissipated or moved inside. Cordero classifies the relocations as victories because they at least permitted law-abiding residents to come out from behind their self-imposed home imprisonments and take back the streets from the drug dealers who once ruled.

What’s more, after responding to an incident, police would later return to the scene to follow up with victims, witnesses or complainants to make sure they were satisfied with the response.

This human approach changed the way Cordero’s protégés measure their success. Instead of congratulating themselves solely on statistics and actual reduction of crime, which is most common in police work, they judge themselves favorably when they’ve had an impact on the public’s perception of crime. One yardstick they used: After about one year, residents began to stand up and applaud when representatives from the police department entered their public meetings.

“We were judging ourselves on the fact people thought we were safer,” Cordero said. “We started to get a lot of information from the community, which made our job a lot easier. Americans like to be on a winning team.” Thomson agrees that building long-term, stable relationships is essential to building trust in the community – which many in the city have found lacking from the state troopers who’ve been assigned to assist local police for more than a decade.

“We’re not looking to be an occupying force, we’re not looking to be a surge effort,” said Thomson. “We’re looking for continuity. It’s not sending one thousand troops in here or locking up every person we see on the street whom we suspect of doing something. If we took that mentality then all we’d be looking to do is incarcerate our community and that is a recipe for disaster.”

In Camden, Cordero and Thomson will deploy more county officers onto the streets and hire civilians to perform many administrative tasks. His staffing levels will allow him to keep his cops on the beat even when tragedy strikes elsewhere. As he did in East Orange, he’ll reevaluate the allocation of other resources and break paradigms to devote money and manpower to the areas that need it.

For example, when he arrived in East Orange, Cordero disbanded the narcotics unit and formed a violent crime task force in its place. While the move seemed counterintuitive in a drug-plagued city, he had discovered through extensive data mining that drugs were not causing the primary problems in the city – violence was. And although the two often make familiar bedfellows, by intensifying his pursuit of violent criminals and plotting ways to prevent gunfire in the areas where it was most likely to occur, Cordero reduced the violent crime rate by 56 percent in two years, which most would agree has a more devastating impact on a community’s quality of life than drugs alone.

He explains his decision this way: “As police departments, we’re not always using the resources in ways that make people safer. We shifted from what we thought needed to be done to the things our citizens were saying, which were, ‘Get the violent folks off our streets and focus on the kinds of things that make living in this community a living hell.’ "

Thomson, like Cordero, believes strongly in using the third tool in his arsenal: technology. As chief of the metro division, he’ll have the resources to bring East Orange’s most successful technological innovations to Camden. He’ll revive the “Eye in the Sky” camera program to monitor high-crime areas. To be monitored by civilians instead of officers, the cameras can triangulate noises like gunshots and immediately alert dispatchers to the exact location of a shooting. In East Orange, the cameras were outfitted with analytical computer programs that advocates claim can actually predict a crime before it occurs.

For instance, a network of cameras can pick up a woman walking alone late at night, notice a car driving toward her slowly, go on alert if the car stops and raise its alert level if someone gets out of the vehicle. If the woman then appears startled, the system sends a signal to the two closest police cars, which it tracks by GPS, and displays the scene on screens mounted inside the squad cars.

As East Orange Mayor Robert Bowser said, “Literally a police officer can be two places at once.” Bowser, a staunch Cordero ally, also boasts about machines that track all license plates entering the city.

“Criminals tell us, ‘We knew if we did something in East Orange we were going to get caught.’ They tell us that if a stolen car was coming in our direction, I would say more than 70 percent of them turn around and do not come in to East Orange.”

Bowser acknowledges the tactics Cordero implemented smack of Big Brother. But he says although his employees in the city – which has a population that is 96 percent minority -- do field complaints of racial profiling, they haven’t been sued or publicly attacked by organizations like the ACLU or NAACP, whose representatives they met with before they rolled out their high-tech crime-fighting weapons.

That doesn’t mean everyone else in the city was thrilled with Cordero’s tenure. Citing an abrasive style, in 2011 the East Orange City Council did not renew Cordero’s contract, a decision that compelled Police Chief Robert Borgo to resign in protest. But even council members who voted against keeping him in East Orange say their issue was personality rather than performance.

“He was pretty good at what he was doing. It could have been his style of leadership,” said council President Quilla Talmadge, who voted with the majority.

For the most part, Camden’s FOP, whose president, John Williamson, was unavailable for comment, reserves most of its criticism for Thomson and the lawmakers who support the transition from city to county force. They accuse public officials of inflating the number of applicants from the city and underreporting the amount of money they’ll need to create the agency and where they plan to get it.

They also express doubts that a young officer from outside the community can be as effective as a seasoned one from within, and they blame Thomson for driving up overtime to make the argument that his force is woefully understaffed. But Thomson, along with Gov. Chris Christie, Camden Mayor Dana Redd, and all but one county freeholder support the plan and the man who’s been hired as its architect.

“We’re at 1969 staffing levels,” warned Thomson. “We are essentially in day-to-day crisis mode. The paradigm that Joe Cordero uses and that we’ve used here gets us in front of crime as opposed to being clerks who simply record it.”

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden, NJ, waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter in 2005, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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