In Camden, President Obama Talks Community Policing and Building Trust

Tara Nurin | May 19, 2015 | Politics
President commends police force for dramatic reduction in crime, even as department faces complaints about use of excessive force, cooking crime statistics

Calling Camden a “symbol of promise for the nation,” President Barack Obama used the New Jersey city as the setting to announce several federal initiatives to build trust between law enforcement and the public yesterday. The president, speaking in response to the high-profile police brutality cases that have troubled the nation over the past year, commended the city’s reconstituted police department for its dramatically improved crime rates and its role as an international model for community policing.

Since Camden replaced its city police force with a new county force two years ago, the nation’s poorest and often most violent city (per capita) has begun to transform. Chief Scott Thomson is using some of the most state-of-the-art crime prevention and detection technology available. He also has made community policing — an approach that has officers working with the community — a centerpiece of his crime-fighting strategy. Supporters say safer streets and strong leadership are attracting millions of dollars in corporate investment and contributing to the highest bond ratings in Camden history.

But while the president lauded Camden police for “making real progress in just two years,” not everyone shares his enthusiasm. The ACLU issued a statement yesterday calling attention to the department’s number of excessive force complaints, and the White House traveling press corps reported a smattering of protesters holding anti-Camden PD signs along the president’s route.

What’s more, local journalists questioned Thomson after the president’s speech about whether the 47 percent drop in homicides cited by the president was in comparison to 2012, the year that crime skyrocketed because the old city police department had just laid off half its officers.

According to Thomson, “Today was not a declaration of victory as much as a celebration of progress in beginning to build trust (between the police and the public).”

One of the president’s recommendations and strategies is the Police Data Initiative (PDI), which puts volunteer technology experts into cities to teach police agencies to amalgamate data in ways that can be shared with the public and alert law enforcement to meaningful patterns.

Noting that the Camden PD labors under 41 different data systems, Obama said that he’d brought the tech team with him to get started right away.

“Departments might track things like incidents of force so that they can identify and handle problems that could otherwise escalate,” Obama said.

The PDI is one component of a report released today by the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing. As part of the report, Obama announced the National Body-Worn Camera Toolkit, an online tool that police departments can use to learn about the advantages, disadvantages and best practices of using body cameras. The toolkit is part of a $20 million partnership program run by the Department of Justice to teach agencies how to most effectively and constitutionally use the cameras.

The justice department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) will spearhead cooperative efforts between a dozen national law enforcement and municipal associations to share best practices and develop projects to address police/community issues like fostering trust between the community and the department; write policies and use technology in ways that reflect community values; solicit public input and engage residents in police training.

COPS will release $163 million in grants to fund agencies that want to adopt the recommendations. In conjunction, the International Association of Chiefs of Police will build a National Center for Community-Police Relations.

Additionally, the administration released new policies concerning the transfer of military equipment to local law-enforcement agencies. Effective immediately, local departments can no longer accept heavy-duty artillery like “tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers and large-caliber firearms.”

A second regulation, to be phased in over time, requires localities seeking equipment like “armored vehicles, tactical vehicles, riot gear, and specialized firearms and ammunition” to receive permission from their governing civilian body, commit to training standards and general protocols, and collect and disseminate data whenever the equipment is used in a “significant incident.”

“We are without a doubt sitting at a turning point in American policing,” Ron Davis, director of COPS, told reporters on a conference call Sunday.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey co-chaired the task force, consulted the Ferguson, MO, police department after last summer’s hostility between the department and the African-American community, and attended yesterday’s event.
“I think they’re great,” he said of the recommendations he helped write. “We’re going to implement them.”

In Camden over the past two years, Thomson has doubled the size of the force from its low 2012 numbers, reduced response times from 60 minutes to 4.4, hired civilians to take administrative jobs that were keeping officers behind their desks, and set up regular foot patrols so officers can build relationships with civilians. When the retooled department launched, residents in every neighborhood received a mailing that introduced members of the department and provided phone numbers for various police-related services.

Thomson’s staff sends letters to parents of suspected drug users and reaches out to gang members who want to leave gang life. The chief also tries to build communication and transparency by letting the public tap into the city’s network of crime-detection cameras and anonymously report tips online.

Brenda Antinore, who runs the She Has a Name outreach center for prostitutes, says that the police are so responsive that formerly intractable open-air drug markets are gone, thanks in part to officers peering into the dark crevices where dealers used to hide.

“There’s one block right behind us that was like a McDonald’s drive-though. If we begin to see that, all we have to do is make a phone call and they’re on it,” she said.

Though it’s come to be a cliché in Camden, she says kids really do ride bikes while their parents socialize on front porches in places they didn’t feel safe doing so before.

What’s more, her mostly drug-addicted clients feel like they’re being treated with respect – so much so that they’re now comfortable enough to report rapes and attacks. And when police conduct a roundup of prostitutes and johns, they bring suspects right to Brenda’s center where they find food and representatives from out-of-state programs to rehabilitate sex workers. If they have a clean record and a willingness to quit the business, chances are they won’t get charged.

Antinore said law enforcement’s new attitude is, “How can we show that we care? We’re not just looking to shake you down and lock you up.”

That’s not how everyone feels. An analysis published by the Philadelphia Inquirer last month showed that with 65 excessive-force complaints filed against Camden officers in the preceding two years, the city totaled more than Newark and Jersey City combined. But what troubles the state’s ACLU chapter more is that all of those claims were dismissed.

Yesterday, the organization released a statement saying that while policing in the city has improved, it still has concerns over the department’s level of accountability and its habit of arresting people for petty offenses like riding a bicycle without a bell.

“(It) has the potential to create a climate of fear, rather than respect, in the community,” wrote ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer.

“We train our officers that our preferred outcome is a warning,” Thomson said yesterday, before mentioning that he’s had conversations with the ACLU. “At the same time as we try to address these quality of life issues you can only issue a warning so many times.”

“It’s all propaganda, it’s all hype,” said New Jersey’s NAACP president, Francis, of the new force.

Francis, a frequent critic of the department, echoes suspicions held by skeptics. Ever since city and state leaders dismantled the old department in what critics see as a union-busting move, they never miss an opportunity to cast doubt on the rosy portrait consistently painted by Thomson, Mayor Dana Redd, Camden-based congressman Donald Norcross (D-NJ), and Gov. Chris Christie, who spent yesterday in New Hampshire, though his administration says he’s visited Camden 25 times since taking office.

Adversaries point out that many of their public crime-reduction statistics use 2012 as a baseline even though the numbers from that year were atypically high. Some even believe that the city, crying poor, laid off half of its officers specifically to force public opinion toward the county force by allowing crime to surge. It didn’t help city leaders’ cause when the public discovered that because the new force is classified as a county, rather than city, department, Camden could finesse its way off the list that consistently ranked it among the most violent cities in the country.

And just in time for the president’s arrival, the Inquirer published a story yesterday that exposed an exceptionally high turnover rate within the ranks of young new recruits. Skeptics have maintained that too many older, more experienced officers who lost their jobs during the layoffs didn’t come back. To be fair, everyone was invited to apply for new positions, albeit with less favorable seniority rules and benefits.

But inside the Salvation Army Kroc Center’s auditorium, the president spoke glowingly about Camden, its leaders, and its potential. He mentioned that Camden had just been selected to join his Promise Zone program that creates direct multiagency channels of communication and grant funding between impoverished regions and the federal government. And his staff said that he’d also selected Camden for participation in his My Brother’s Keeper Challenge, which encourages communities to “implement a coherent cradle-to-college and career strategy aimed at improving life outcomes for all young people,” particularly young men of color.

Obama quoted an inscription at the top of city hall written by former resident Walt Whitman, “In a dream I see a city invincible.” Then turning his attention to the nation as a whole, he said something most residents likely never have expected to hear: “Camden is showing that it can be done. I want America to show everybody around the world that it can be done.”