Mean Streets, Sensitive Cops: Camden’s New Guard

In Camden, a new county police force aims to connect with the people it is supposed to protect.

Officers Baruch Zepeda and Robert Mulligan.
A New Beat: Officers Baruch Zepeda, left, and Robert Mulligan patrol North Camden on one of the walking beats conduted by the new police force. "You go up and down the streets making contact with the people," Zepeda says.
Photo by Matthew Wright

It’s a late-August afternoon in Camden’s Elijah Perry Park, and little Chloe Smith is tugging at her mother’s shirt, begging to play on the jungle gym. Latina Smith rolls her eyes at her demanding daughter, but in truth she could not be happier. Less than a year ago, she could only dream of bringing Chloe into this park; she would not even have let her play outside.

“It was horrible,” says Smith, 32, a lifelong resident of Camden’s Centerville neighborhood. “You didn’t want your kids out much—definitely not after dark. And sometimes not even in the middle of the day.”

Drug dealers and gang members prowled the streets of Centerville, says Smith, defiantly flaunting their nefarious activities in broad daylight without fear of consequences. Violent confrontations were the norm. There was no telling who might get caught in the crossfire.

Smith recalls the afternoon of September 12, 2013. It was just after 3:30 when 17 rounds from a high-powered assault rifle sliced through the park. At that exact moment, a school bus shuttling children home from daycare turned onto South Ninth Street and into harm’s way. One of the children inside the bus was hit by flying glass. Everyone knew the kids had gotten off lucky.

“There was good reason to be scared,” says Smith.

On this breezy afternoon though, fear is nowhere to be found. The laughter of children lining up for free ice cream has replaced the sound of gunfire. A live band is playing classic rock. Adults are conversing over plates of free food. On the basketball court, more than a dozen uniformed Camden County police officers are shooting hoops with neighborhood teens. Welcome to Meet Your Neighborhood Police Officers, one of several outdoor festivals staged last summer throughout Camden.

The meet-and-greet is just one manifestation of the new police culture that has been taking shape in this beleaguered city since May 2013, when Camden took the bold step of disbanding its 141-year-old municipal police department and replacing it with a new force run by the county.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap between the citizens of Camden and the police, and these festivals are a way for the citizens of Camden to see that we’re regular people,” says Lieutenant Richard Verticelli, a 17-year Camden police veteran and commander of day-to-day police operations in the city’s Second District.

“In the past, I think people viewed us as standoffish guys in uniform,” says Verticelli. “Maybe they even feared us a little bit. But we want to show them that we’re not something to be afraid of. We’re here to protect you when you need protection and to counsel you when you need counseling. And we want to show that we’re no longer a reactionary police department. We’re here to engage with you and to get out in front of crime, not just chase it.”

That, in broad terms, is the mission of the Camden County Police Department, which has not only brought more officers to the city but has fostered a stunning transformation in the way cops interact with residents and the way residents perceive those who are sworn to protect and serve them.

The effort, it seems, is paying off. Since 2013, murders have decreased citywide by 44 percent, shootings by 41 percent. Property crime has dipped to a three-year low. But that’s only part of the story. Just as importantly, residents of Camden (population 77,000) are beginning to feel proud and safe in the neighborhoods they call home.

“We’ve been let down by the police so many times,” says Smith, as her daughter makes a beeline for the jungle gym. “We needed proof. And they actually did it. Things have definitely changed.”

Sitting in a brown leather chair inside his office on Federal Street, Camden County police chief J. Scott Thomson is trying to explain the city’s former policing problems. Two words come to mind: lethargy and apathy.

“There was an overall mindset that the police could do very little to prevent crime or shape outcomes,” says Thomson. “It was destroying this city.”

Thomson, a Camden cop for more than two decades, is in his seventh year as chief. He says even before the formation of the county force he had been seeking solutions to the indifference that was crippling his department. There was a lot of damage to undo. Prior to his tenure, Camden had gone through five police chiefs in six years. Some were sacked, some moved on to new jobs. But Thomson’s roots in Camden ran deep. His grandparents lived and worked here, and he grew up nearby in Gloucester City.

“This is more than just a job for me. From the day I came on the force, I saw this as a ministry. A vocation,” says Thomson. “I know these people. I know these neighborhoods. I have a lot of skin in the game.”

All of those factors made Thomson the obvious choice for chief of the new force, says Dan Keashen, a Camden County spokesperson.

Keeping Thomson as chief may have been an easy call, but the process of dissolving the city force and starting the county department from scratch was anything but.

According to Thomson, years of dwindling morale had been compounded by Camden’s increasingly dire financial state, which hit bottom on January 16, 2011, when Mayor Dana Redd announced she was laying off 168 city police officers, 46 percent of the force, in an effort to close a $26.5 million municipal budget gap. Redd had spent several months trying to negotiate concessions with public safety unions that might have prevented the layoffs, asking cops and firefighters to pay more for their health care, freeze or reduce their salaries and agree to periodic furlough days. But the unions dug in, and Redd maintained that she had no choice but to proceed with the firings.

“Camden could only afford what it could afford, and what it could afford was not enough officers to police the city,” says Keashen.

Meanwhile, the Camden County Board of Freeholders, led by director Louis Cappelli Jr., was developing a proposal to regionalize county policing. The idea, says Cappelli, was simple: Pool the resources of Camden County’s 37 municipalities to form a single, economically streamlined police force.

“The idea that all 37 municipalities have their own police force is just not sustainable,” says Cappelli. “That’s 37 chiefs, 37 different operations manuals, 37 department hierarchies. The redundancies are just insane. Everyone loves their own town, and we understand that. But at some point, the notion that people think their taxes are too high but that they also want their own police department reaches a tipping point.”

In August 2011, the county freeholders, Camden City officials and the state entered a memorandum of understanding that set in motion the formation of the new department and the dissolution of the city force. Governor Chris Christie committed $10 million of state aid to help fund the start-up, and the state’s Division of Local Government Services was assigned to oversee the transition in conjunction with the county freeholders.

“I think this should be a wave of the future in places that are challenged like [Camden],” Christie said at a September 2011 press conference pledging state support. “We’re certainly going to be full partners.”

Nonetheless, pockets of opposition rallied against the measure. None of the county’s other 36 municipalities wanted to get on board with regionalization—and all continue to maintain their own police forces. “Cherry Hill police officers will police Cherry Hill streets—and Cherry Hill streets only,” then Cherry Hill mayor Bernie Platt told South Jersey magazine. “A countywide department may be good for other towns, but I see no reason for the township to entertain an alternative to our current police department and public-safety services.”

Meanwhile, the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) stood firm in its opposition to the plan, which created a non-unionized force. John Williamson, who was at the time president of the Camden FOP, frequently referred to the proposal as “union busting.”

Still, regionalization moved forward after final approval by the freeholders. On May 1, 2013, Camden’s city police department was disbanded, and a new entity, the Camden County Police Metro Division, officially took over policing responsibilities in the city. The newly minted force included 155 former Camden city cops—who had to reapply for their jobs—and 106 new recruits.

In the months leading up to the formation of the new force, Thomson presided over several community focus groups, asking residents what they wanted from their officers. Despite voices of dissent elsewhere, Thomson says the residents of Camden were unanimous in their desire for change.

“The people of Camden wanted a safer environment,” says Thomson. “These people were under siege and being held hostage in their own homes.”

The numbers are scary. According to City Crime Rankings published by CQ Press, Camden had the highest crime rate in the nation among cities of 75,000 residents or more in 2012. That year, says Thomson, there were 67 homicides, 58 rapes and more than 500 robberies. Prostitution and drug deals took place in plain sight of officers and surveillance cameras, and police failed to respond to more than 30 percent of gunshots in Camden’s most violent neighborhoods, Thomson acknowledges.

“In 2011, we had a person shot every 32 hours in our city. That’s a tragedy,” says Thomson. “Camden is a poor city, but it doesn’t have to be a violent city. And these people deserve something better than what you’d expect in a third-world country.”

Disbanding the city force had several immediate benefits. For one, all police contracts were rewritten, allowing the county to hire more officers for less money.

According to Keashen, the former city force contracts were padded with fringe benefits that drove up the average cost per officer to about $182,000. And while the new contracts essentially provided the same base salary, health benefits and pension structure, they eliminated other perks, including daytime shift differentials, which meant a 4 percent hazard-pay bonus for working overnight shifts; longevity raises, which often gave officers a 10 percent salary bump after 10 years of service; and wage accelerants for deployment changes, which provided a salary bonus when officers were moved to new assignments.

Without these fringe benefits, Keashen says the county was able to bring the average per-officer expense down to about $99,000. That has allowed Camden’s police presence to increase from 250 officers to its current level of more than 400 (new recruits now total 256). Even the union is happy. In October 2013, members of the new force voted to rejoin the state’s FOP.

Further, Thomson says, starting a new department from scratch allowed him to achieve the larger goal of “building a new police culture”—a huge accomplishment for his management team.

“Within the first two days of this new force, I gathered my entire command center together and said that I don’t ever want to hear the phrase, ‘But we’ve always done it this way,’” says Thomson. “We are now going to operate under the premise that we’ve always done things the wrong way.”

The old way of policing Camden meant cops would drive through troubled neighborhoods “every once in a while” in squad cars, Thomson explains. The windows were almost always rolled up, and the police rarely interacted with residents except when trouble was unfolding.

Absenteeism was another major issue. It was not unusual for more than 30 percent of officers to call in sick on a given day, says Thomson. Sometimes, absenteeism reached 50 or 60 percent. And for many of the officers who did report for duty, policing Camden was about clocking in for a paycheck rather than patrolling the streets.

“One of the questions I often asked during performance reviews was, ‘How can you, an officer, drive through some of the most crime-ridden streets in the United States for 12 hours and not see anything? How is that even fathomable?’” says Thomson. “There was no interaction, no preventative policing, and when officers don’t do their jobs, people die. It’s that simple.”

Relying on citizen input gathered at his community outreach meetings, Thomson turned his focus to officer-resident engagement. His new mantra: “The police are the people, and the people are the police.”

Thomson implemented dozens of daily walking beats throughout the city. Now, teams of officers patrol neighborhoods on foot, keeping an eye out for the bad guys while getting to know local residents and business owners.

All of the changes in Camden took place long before the fatal police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, spawned nationwide protests over police tactics. For Thomson, those tragic events and the national attention that followed make Camden’s new force even more relevant.

“Community policing, such as walking beats and increased contact between officers and residents, is necessary to prevent the confrontations that exploded in Ferguson and Staten Island,” says Thomson. “These places serve as a reminder to all of government the certainty of disaster when the people you serve no longer view you with legitimacy. The best remedy to prevent this is to maintain a constant, sincere dialogue and inclusion of the public you serve.”

Behind the scenes in Camden, more than 30 civilian clerks monitor 125 round-the-clock surveillance cameras through the department’s Real-Time Tactical Operations and Information Center (RTTOIC) inside the force’s Federal Street headquarters. Boasting $4.5 million worth of advanced monitoring equipment—paid for by state and federal grants as well as forfeiture funds seized by police during arrests—the center’s focus is a wall of 10 42-inch monitors that provide real-time video feeds of dozens of street corners. Trained civilian analysts also monitor live surveillance video on their computers, conducting round-the-clock virtual patrols of the city’s most perilous streets.

The authorities aren’t just watching, they are listening. Dozens of Shot Spotter microphones have also been placed throughout the city over the past three years. If a gunshot is fired, RTTOIC analysts get an immediate audio replay and can deploy officers to the scene “within seconds,” Thomson says. In fact, it was a Shot Spotter mic that picked up the 17 rounds fired in Centerville last September.

“Because we heard 17 shots, we knew this wasn’t just someone test firing a gun,” says Thomson. “We knew we had to send in the cavalry.”

Every squad car is also outfitted with a camera that can snap license-plate photos of any car that seems suspicious. Those tags can then be cross-referenced with city and national databases.

RTTOIC also monitors the activity of every squad car patrolling the city’s streets. The effect, says Thomson, is twofold. First, emergency calls for service are immediately entered into the system, which geo-locates the two closest squad cars and alerts those officers to respond.

Second, the monitoring of squad-car activity has given Thomson the ability to make sure his officers are doing their jobs.

“Let’s say you work a 12-hour shift, with an hour for lunch and another hour for gassing up and washing your car. That leaves you with 600 minutes. We know that about 300 of those minutes will be taken up with calls for service. But you now have 300 minutes left to shape outcomes in neighborhoods,” says Thomson. “So after you answer your call for service, that doesn’t mean you go sit under the Ben Franklin Bridge and read the paper, which is what used to happen all the time. Instead, that’s when the good people of this city expect us to go out and interact with them, and we can see [on the monitors] whether or not officers are doing that.”

The new proactive culture, increased police presence and stepped-up surveillance have cut average response times from more than an hour to less than five minutes, Thomson says.

On the other hand, critics say the proliferation of surveillance technology in Camden has come at the expense of certain civil liberties. In March 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a public records request in New Jersey and 22 other states to discover “the extent to which local police departments are using federally subsidized military technology and tactics that are traditionally used overseas.”

In announcing the filing, Kara Dansky, senior counsel for the ACLU’s Center for Justice, said the practice “erodes civil liberties and encourages increasingly aggressive policing, particularly in poor neighborhoods and communities of color.”

Thomson is unfazed. He maintains that his department’s surveillance tactics “are not being used to spy on people.” He claims that every RTTOIC camera operator receives extensive training in proper surveillance techniques and that the department’s Division of Internal Affairs conducts random monthly audits of every analyst’s surveillance activity.

“You come across certain civil liberties organizations that say they have major issues with the cameras,” says Thomson. “But then I go out to community meetings and I get grilled by residents who complain about there not being a camera on their block. This is all aimed at preventing crime, not spying on residents or compromising privacy.”

Baruch Zepeda was born and raised in Camden on the corner of 28th and Federal. His parents, weary of the poverty and violence around them, eventually moved the family to suburban Merchantville. Now 21, Zepeda is back, this time in uniform, walking the streets of North Camden on a hot August afternoon with his partner, Officer Robert Mulligan.

“As a child, I was never really allowed outside because of what this city had become,” recalls Zepeda. “My school was right behind our house, so I would go from home to school and back again.”

Zepeda has a keen desire to let the people of Camden know they are being served by the new force. That, he says, is why you walk a beat.

“You go into local stores. You say hello to business owners,” says Zepeda. “You go up and down the streets making contact with the people. And you talk about their issues and ask them how we can resolve them.”

Turning the corner at Fourth and Grant streets, Mulligan spots six teens on a stoop. He and Zepeda approach the teens and start a casual conversation. They ask about family, school, career prospects. In time, the conversation turns to the difference between the old force and the new one. One 19-year-old who goes by the name Jonathan Townsend (probably an alias) takes the lead.

“Look. This what I believe. I’m gonna give y’all an honest opinion,” says Townsend. “I’m gonna say y’all are doing your job. Camden city police was way worse than y’all. You ain’t no bother to nobody unless you got a proper cause. You all actually give us respect. You don’t violate our Fourth Amendment rights. And it’s different. Streets are quiet. It’s better. Yeah. Better. People still die though.”

Unfortunately, the last statement is all too true. Despite the progress made by the county force, Camden’s murder rate remains several times higher than the national average. But neither the officers nor the residents believe the new force is a panacea for a city that has suffered for so long. Rather, it’s a big step in the right direction. Thomson calls it “making deposits in the bank of the city’s trust.”

Later in the afternoon, Zepeda and Mulligan run into Edgar Alejandro, an affable community leader who is walking down Vine Street with a Chihuahua named Mimi perched on his shoulder.

“When I first moved here five years ago, it looked like a nuclear bomb had hit the place,” Alejandro tells the officers. “There were drugs everywhere. Shootings all the time. A lot of killing. Even a guy in a wheelchair got shot. It was crazy. Now, you see these officers walking around, meeting people, introducing themselves, getting to know who’s who on the block.”

Thanks to the street cops, says Alejandro, “the blocks are cleaner, quieter. They’re doing their job. Big time. Their hearts are out here.”

Driving his patrol car through North Camden, Lieutenant Felix Rivera points out locations that have significantly improved over the past year. Rivera, a 19-year veteran of the old force, is sometimes rendered speechless by the change that’s taken place.

“Look over there,” says Rivera, pointing to the corner of Eighth and Elm. “When we started this county force, that corner was mayhem. You’d see 15 or 20 people, all buying or selling [drugs] in the middle of the day…But since we put out the walking beats, it’s totally different.”

Rivera notes that Camden enjoyed more than 40 consecutive days last summer without a single homicide—something unheard of in previous years.

Still, he says, the situation is far from perfect. “We have a lot more resources than we used to have,” says Rivera. “But we can’t be here 24-7.”

Back at Elijah Perry Park, Mayor Redd delivers a rousing speech about the changes taking place in her city. She steps off the stage to great applause. A young man takes her place at the microphone and performs an a cappella rendition of the late soul singer Sam Cooke’s Civil Rights-era classic “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

“What you’re seeing is not only safety returning to the city of Camden but also that the community is starting to believe again,” Redd tells New Jersey Monthly. “You hear the sounds of children at play, and you see a lot of vibrancy in the neighborhoods because people feel safe and free to come out of their homes, to walk the streets and to enjoy our parks. All of that is the energy and momentum of positive change for Camden.”

A lot of work remains. Thomson knows that Camden’s problems run deep. He points out that single-parent households comprise 68 percent of the city’s population, the highest rate in the country. What’s more, the high-school dropout rate hovers close to 50 percent.

Still, he is optimistic that his force can drive change.

“You could give me a thousand cops, and I could put one on every corner, and our ability to suppress flagrant activity would be great,” says Thomson. “But this is about much more than how many officers you have patrolling a city. It’s about doing everything we can to give the people of this city the opportunity for better lives.”

Gladys Antelo, a lifelong Camden resident, appreciates what Thomson’s force has accomplished.

“This past year has been a big difference,” says the 25-year-old Antelo, whose son Jose licks an ice cream cone at her side. “The drug dealers have disappeared. My kids play outside now. I feel a lot safer walking home. And there’s respect. People realize the police are here for a good reason. We feel more comfortable talking to them about things happening in our neighborhood. It feels like we’re finally taking our home back.”

Nick DiUlio is South Jersey bureau chief for New Jersey Monthly.

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