Obama Plays In Christie’s Democratic Sandbox

Matt Katz | May 19, 2015 | Katz on Christie

The new police department in Camden, NJ, was conveived by a Democratic powerbroker, endorsed by his ally — the Republican governor — and is now being promoted as a national model by a Democratic president whom the Republican governor mocks just about every day.

Got all that? The intermingling politics of the Camden police situation requires a road map. Here it is:

How it started: Budget restraints led to massive layoffs in the department in 2011. Neither Gov. Chris Christie nor the Democrats who control Camden came up with money to prevent nearly half of the department’s officers from being laid off. That is believed to have created the ensuing public safety crisis — 67 homicides in 2012, a record for this small city of 80,000 people. 

The solution: George E. Norcross III, the Camden hospital executive who controls Democratic politics in the southern part of the state and beyond, created a plan for the Camden City Council to disband its department and have the Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders start its own force — under the same chief, but with much cheaper employment contracts in order to put more boots on the ground. It took several months for Christie to come through with money, a source said, but eventually Christie supported the new department with $10 million in start-up funds.

Camden becomes a model: More cops were hired, crime went down, Camden got lots of media attention and Police Chief Scott Thomson was involved in a task force that the White House convened after Ferguson. The new Camden cops took what they describe as a new, progressive approach to policing: Cops giving ice cream to kids, doing foot patrols and thinking of themselves more as the peace corps rather than special forces.

What happened Monday: Urban violence and policing is one of the most intractable issues out there, and everyone wants a piece of this story. On Monday President Obama visited Camden, long known as the country’s poorest and most dangerous city, praising it for developing a model for the kind of innovative policing that can prevent conflicts between police and civilians seen recently in Baltimore and Ferguson. He called Camden “a symbol of promise for the nation.” Meanwhile, Christie, during another stop in his pre-presidential campaign in New Hampshire, sent out a series of tweets taking credit for the change in policing there and mentioned Camden both at a town hall meeting and in an interview on Fox News.

Selective Stats: Obama said on Monday that murders are down 47 percent. Christie said 55 percent. The county says it’s actually 50 percent. Whatever it is, politicians on all sides are comparing crime now to the historic highs seen in 2012, when the police force was decimated by a budget crisis. Nearly half of the police department was laid off and this town of 80,000 people saw a whopping 67 homicides. But the same politicians who couldn’t find enough money to pay cops then — and that means everyone from Christie to Democrats who control Camden — now use that crisis year to demonstrate progress. Critics say they created the crisis in the first place. Still, so far this year there have only been nine homicides, which would put Camden by year’s end at levels not seen in more than 15 years.

Community Policing: The Camden police chief was involved in a task force on community policing that the White House convened after Ferguson, and he has gotten a lot of media attention about his push for the foot patrols that define the community policing method. Camden therefore provides Obama the evidence he needs to show the effectiveness of community policing, and it gives Christie an answer to the “what do we do about situations like Ferguson?” question he has been hearing on the campaign trail.

Union Busting: By closing the department, the police union was effectively busted. The whole point was to get rid of what local politicians called an onerous union contract for police officers so they could put more cops on the street. And it worked. There are now more police officers who are paid less and have reduced benefits. This is something Christie is campaigning on as he wooes conservative voters. “We fired the entire Camden Police Department,” he said Monday. But for Obama, with a union constituency, this is more complicated. He was sure to note in his speech Monday that the new force is indeed unionized. 

ACLU’s Cold Water: The American Civil Liberties Union says the crime reductions are coming at a price. They raise questions about why civilian complaints about excessive force have gone up, as have the number of minor infractions, like riding a bike without a bell. Christie doesn’t mind one bit that the ACLU has taken issue with the new department. In general, he has taken a decidedly antagonistic tack towards civil libertarians from both the Democratic side and the Rand Paul wing of the Republican party. The ACLU’s concerns, however, complicate the story for Obama and local Democrats, who will have to contend with the ACLU looking over their shoulders.

Mission Accomplished: The prospect of an urban center that has cut crime in half is too good of a story for any politican to pass up. But two leaders in Camden whispered to me yesterday that they are uncomfortable with all of the early praise for the new Camden and it reminds them of President Bush’s famous “Mission Accomplished” victory rally at the beginning of the war in Iraq. Obama yesterday called Camden a “symbol of promise for the nation” — but in the next line he seemed to catch himself, saying: “I don’t want to overstate it.”