Camden Revisited: A New Approach to Policing

Camden police chief says new approach to policing pays off with lower crime, more community engagement.

Camden police chief J. Scott Thomson says investing in education is essential to fighting crime. “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” he declares.
Photo by Matthew Wright

In May 2013, Camden disbanded its 141-year-old municipal police department and replaced it with a force run by the county. The force, it was declared, would be more visible and would better connect with the community. The hope was that this radical move would help lower crime and violence in the beleaguered city.

Camden’s situation was dire. The prior year, the city had a record-high murder rate and was listed among the five most crime-plagued cities in the country. Something had to change.

Fast-forward almost six years. Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson says the situation is improving. “Based on the metrics for the last five years,” says Thomson, “every crime category has experienced a double-digit reduction, with precipitous drops in homicides, violent crime and overall crime.” Total crime, adds Thomson, is at a 50-year low. “In fact, we have seen a 69 percent decline in murders and a 44 percent drop in [nonviolent] crime since the county police department’s formation.”

Thomson is pleased with community support for centralized policing. “We have been building trust and approach challenges with a Hippocratic-oath mentality of ‘first, do no harm.’”

The approach, says Thomson, represents “a seismic shift in the culture and philosophy that is employed by every officer in the agency.” It means working directly with residents and with children in their schools. It means hosting barbecues in the parks and checking on the elderly.

Community members applaud the change. “Our parks had become havens for criminal activity,” says North Camden native Bryan Morton, a neighborhood organizer. In 2011, Morton and his wife, Felisha, resurrected the North Camden Little League in hope it would be a positive influence on the neighborhood and its kids. “The program started with 110 kids and now has more than 650 players,” says Morton. “The Little League was a social response to what at the time was a criminal-justice and health crisis in our community. We felt that reclaiming our parks would help increase public safety as well as health outcomes in our community.”

Morton describes the members of the new police force as partners in the initiative. They help at practices and games and discourage the use of parks for illicit activities. “In a way,” says Morton, “the police created a beachhead, and the community was able to come out and reclaim those spaces.”

What’s next for Camden policing? Thomson says his department will continue to find better ways to approach Camden’s challenges by bringing more non-police partners to the table. Further, he says, “the investments of working with youth and the schools over the past several years are starting to produce peace dividends. Nothing stops a bullet like a job, so the more we can support and enhance education, the greater potential there is for employment opportunities.”

This is critical in Camden, where 30 percent of the population is under the age of 18. Additionally, 68 percent of the households in the city are single-parent households, which is why Thomson’s force puts so much emphasis on youth.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” says Thomson. “It wasn’t until we fundamentally changed our approach to policing that we started to see meaningful progress. We will never return to the days of solely using traditional police metrics of tickets issued and arrests made to gauge success—not on my watch.”

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