Not so fast for calling Camden a model for fixing policing

The international headlines ask if Camden, once considered the murder capital of America, is now the model for how to fix policing. Some answers, from those who live there:

Louis Cappelli, Freeholder, Camden County said, “We have made a lot of progress. It’s not mission accomplished. We still have some challenges.”

Reverend Amir Khan, “This is not a time to say we’re crossing the finish line and spiking the ball. We’re still the highest rate per capita in all of New Jersey, we’re higher per capita than Chicago. So the crime is still there.”

Journalist April Saul added, “I would say the policing in Camden is better than it’s been in ages right now.”

In 2011, budget cuts led to Camden laying off nearly half its 400 member police force and the laying of officers’ boots in a protest. Violent crime soared. In a recent op-ed piece, freelance journalist April Saul argues the changes were more politically motivated. Saul wrote South Jersey politicians and then Governor Christie collaborated to dissolve the city’s police force, break the police union contract that they considered burdensome, lay off the rest of the force and re-hire about a hundred as Camden ‘County’ Police replaced Camden ‘City’ Police. “It didn’t get better for quite a while.”

A less diverse force practiced a broken windows theory. Saul continued, “Camden residents getting tickets for not having bells on their bicycles. That did not endear them to the new force either. In 2015, former President Obama came and praised the takeover when excessive force complaints were the highest in the state.” The state supreme court later ruled the takeover was illegal, denying residents a vote on it. “Because they didn’t consult with the community and people were really upset.” But, by then, the county police takeover was well underway.

Even critics now acknowledge investments in technology and better use-of-force and de-escalation training have led to huge declines in excessive force complaints and violent crime and community-police relations have improved so much that officers marched with demonstrators to protest the killing of George Floyd. So, is county police in the city of Camden a model for the nation?

“I have a major issue with calling it a role model unless you want to use corruption and illegalities as your point of view for a role model,” reverend Khan added.

Cappelli shared his point of view, “whatever model you incorporate if you begin with our philosophy that the residents of a city want to be respected and that you earn their trust, put that philosophy in practice and you will have a successful police department.”

Saul concluded, “It was a long road so when people look at it as a model – oh look Camden dissolved their police department to do this — I have issues with that.”