Camden’s Peaceful Protests Reflect Success of Community Policing Program

Improved relations between police and residents allowed participation by both groups
Credit: Photo by April Saul/Camden, NJ: A Spirit Invincible
Camden County Metro Police Chief Joe Wysocki raises a fist while marching with Camden residents and activists on May 30, 2020 to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Maybe it really is Camden’s turn now.

The South Jersey city that for years endured some of the nation’s highest rates of crime and poverty is in the national spotlight because it hosted two peaceful George Floyd protests while many other cities —  notably including neighboring Philadelphia— saw looting, burning police cars, and tear gas fired on protesters over a week of unrest on the streets.

How did Camden do it? The answer, say civic leaders, is a seven-year-old community policing program that has built public trust to the point where the police are no longer seen by residents as the enemy but as partners to work with in keeping streets safe.

The good relations helped the widely publicized participation by Police Chief Joseph Wysocki and other officers in a peaceful Black Lives Matter march on May 30, and allowed another protest on June 7 to remain free of looting, rioting or arrests, officials say.

Residents themselves endorse the idea that relations with the police have improved over the last seven years.

“It went from police brutality to police helping out,” said Stanley Moore, 29, sitting on a front porch at 8th and Elm streets on the west side of the city. “I guess we’re all just trying to work together. They’re not even police in my eyes, they’re just community.”

Moore, who has lived in Camden all his life, said the relationship has changed since community policing began.

‘They are not hassling you’

“They are very pleasant and they will help you out to the best of their ability,” he said. “They are not hassling you, they are trying to understand our predicament. As an African American, it’s really good to see the police interacting with the community.”

Outside a bodega across the street, Wilson Morales, 51, said the peaceful protests were among the positive results of the policing strategy.

“We ain’t really had no riots like that,” he said. “They are pretty much doing their jobs, I guess. They are making sure everything is safe. I’ve seen officers asking, ‘Are you OK?’ and that’s good. I like the communication.”

Police, too, confirm that better relations with residents created the right conditions for officers to join the protests, and has driven down crime over the last seven years.

Credit: Photo by April Saul/Camden, NJ: A Spirit Invincible
Camden residents and Camden County police march to protest the death of George Floyd.

“What happened to George Floyd was absolutely horrendous and should have never happened, and so we stand with them,” said Captain Zsakhiem James, a black 27-year veteran of the city and county police who marched with the protesters on May 30, along with Chief Wysocki. “The one thing that our community is saying now is that we don’t want that to happen here, it’s not going to happen here.”

The entire county force is now engaged in community policing, Capt. James said, contrasting with the old city force that had just some officers assigned to building relationships with the community.

Harder now for criminals to operate

The closer the ties the police have in the community, the harder it is for criminals to operate because they know they are being watched by local people, he said.

“There are no criminals who want witnesses to crime so if we flood the area with good people, it’s harder for you to go out there and do something silly or violent because you can’t stop the whole neighborhood talking to us,” he said.

That cooperation has driven down crime and allowed the Floyd protests to go on without violence, observers say.

Dr. Nyeema Watson, associate chancellor for civic engagement at Rutgers University–Camden, and a lifelong Camden resident, said community policing has helped to create an atmosphere where peaceful protests could occur despite violence in other cities.

The police have built trust by hosting regular community events like pop-up barbecues or basketball games, and that has helped people understand that the police wanted to have a relationship with them that wasn’t just based on a reaction to crime, she said.

Since 2013, more cops have been visible on the street, which was “a little unnerving” at first until people understood that they were there to create relationships as well as to deter crime, Watson said.

“All of these things being done consistently, and prior to George Floyd, have laid the groundwork for that event to happen a couple of weeks ago,” she said, referring to the May 30 protest. “All of that relationship building allowed the march to be peaceful.”

While many other cities have community policing programs, Camden has succeeded by using it to create relationships with residents, Watson said. “It’s more than just having more cops on bicycles, it really is about personal interaction,” she said.

It doesn’t mean an end to systemic racism

But the program’s success doesn’t mean systemic racism has been eradicated in police stations or elsewhere, and the culture still needs to change in some police departments, she said.

Bruce Main, founder and president of Urban Promise, a nonprofit that began as a summer camp for neighborhood children in Camden 32 years ago, said the peaceful protests at a time of national tension suggest that the city is moving on from its violent, impoverished past.

“I think there has been some good hard work over the last six or seven years, so when the protests took place last weekend, and they were peaceful, and you saw this wonderful collaboration between clergy and civic leaders and the BLM coordinator and the chief of police, I’ve got to think that’s an encouraging step forward,” he said.

Main said he saw the city’s deterioration in the 1990s and the peak in the murder rate in 2012, and takes heart from the improvements in police-community relations. “Being part of that, seeing that and being here in the middle of this moment, and seeing something different, is certainly encouraging,” he said.

Former Mayor Dana Redd, who oversaw the abolition of the city police department in 2013, said the peaceful protests “unquestionably” reflected the improved relations between the police and residents, and may add to Camden’s reputation as a model of community policing.

“Camden certainly can be pointed to as an example of what can occur when you have strong community policing in place, and good community ties where the community is not standing in opposition to its police department,” she said.

The decision to march

Chief Wysocki’s decision to march with the protesters reflected equal shock in the police department at the killing of Floyd, a black man, by a white policeman in Minneapolis on May 25, said Louis Cappelli, director of the Camden County Board of Freeholders, and one of the instigators of the community policing program.

“Our police were just as offended as our city residents by what they witnessed in Minnesota,” he said. “Excessive force is something that is simply not tolerated in our city, and the residents understand that, so it was natural for our police and residents to protest together.”

Community policing requires officers to form relationships with residents; emphasizes the use of “de-escalation” in handling confrontations, and excludes any officers with violent tendencies. The reforms were noted in “Camden’s Turn: A Story of Police Reform in Progress,” a film made under a U.S. Justice Department initiative.

Total violent crime in Camden for the first four months of 2020 was down 52% compared with the corresponding period of 2012, the last year before the community policing program began. For 2012 as a whole, there were a record-high 67 homicides in the city compared with only three so far this year, according to county crime figures.

The overall crime rate in the city, which has a population of about 75,000, has dropped from 79 per 1,000 population in 2012 to a projected 36 per 1,000 this year, the data shows. The city is 50% Hispanic, 42% black, and 5% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The city’s economic challenges remain, with a 2018 poverty rate of 36.8% — more than three times the national rate — and a median household income that year of $27,000, Census Bureau data shows.

Crime is down, investment is up

But declining crime has encouraged some $2 billion in recent investment by several major employers who have brought jobs with them. They include Holtec, which has invested $340 million to build a new nuclear fuel reprocessing facility on the south side of the city; Subaru of America, with investment of $181 million, and American Water which spent $165 million on a new campus on the Delaware River waterfront. In all, new investments have created some 1,800 jobs since 2014, according to the county.

“There would not be billions of dollars invested and thousands of new jobs created if it was not for improving public safety,” said Cappelli, who introduced the program along with other civic leaders including the former city police chief, J. Scott Thomson.

Camden County began the program by disbanding the underfunded city police department which had been unable to prevent a surge in crime that Cappelli said gave the city a crime rate comparable to “some third-world countries.”

The switch was embraced by former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who sought his party’s nomination for president, as a way of cutting crime in Camden while saving money after state finances were battered by the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

Closing the city police department, reassigning its duties to the county-run force, and negotiating a new contract with the police union resulted in almost twice as many officers on Camden’s streets without extra expense, and was helped by state funding obtained by Christie, said Dan Keashen, a spokesman for the county.

“For the same money the city was paying about 220 officers, we were now able to put about 400 officers out on the street,” Keashen said.

At the top of the county force’s list of priorities was requiring cops to use force only when absolutely necessary, a departure from the practice under the city-run police department.

“In the city department, an officer was much more likely to use excessive force or a weapon,” Cappelli said. “Today that’s our last resort.”