#Camden, NJ did police reform right — not that radicals will pay attention
“#Camden, NJ did police reform right — not that radicals will pay attention”
June 9, 2020 | 5:58pm
Lt. Zack James of the Camden County Metro Police Department marches along with demonstrators in Camden, N.J., to protest the death of George Floyd.
In 2013, state and local officials dissolved the old Camden Police Department and reconstituted it as the Camden County Metro Police. They did so for both programmatic and fiscal reasons.
Camden is one of the poorest in cities in America, and the Great Recession exacerbated its chronic economic woes; the city was able to provide basic municipal services only thanks to massive state aid. At the same time, crime was rising, and the department had been hit hard by scandals involving corruption and abuse.
Moved by the need for reform but also unhappy about throwing good money after bad, then-Gov. Chris Christie along with local officials embarked on a complete overhaul of policing services.
They created a new public-safety department within the Camden County government, dedicated to policing Camden city. The old department was disbanded.
A new department allowed officials to enact an entirely new union contract. Featherbedding work rules that kept cops off the streets were out. Officials invited all cops to reapply for their jobs and rehired most, including the former police chief. Still, they exercised some selectivity in staffing up the new department. The quality of the force improved, without sacrificing the hard-won experience and institutional knowledge of veteran cops.
Shifting ultimate authority from the Camden mayor and city council to the Camden County board of freeholders entailed a certain sacrifice of local control. But the subsequent drop in crime as well as implementation of community policing has made the new arrangement broadly satisfying among the public.
The result: Overall violent crime peaked in 2011 and has since dropped by 46 percent. Murders, after peaking in 2012, are down by a whopping 62 percent.
The US Department of Justice’s office of Community Policing Strategies recently praised the work of the new Camden County Metro Police. Even then-President Barack Obama had good words for the new department. On a special visit to Camden in May 2015, less than a year after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Obama called community policing in Camden “a symbol of promise for the nation.”
Community policing had been impractical under the former city contract, which allowed too many uniformed officers to spend their days on civilian desk work. Far from scrapping the police in favor of social workers or “community organizations,” Camden almost doubled the number of officers out patrolling neighborhoods under its new regime.
Camden teaches that, before presuming that the problems with a city’s police department are “systemic,” first focus on the bad apples (again, most cops in Camden were rehired). Union contracts can be a major stumbling block to sensible reforms. Reckless cuts jeopardize police-community relations, which can be improved by maximizing the number of cops available to be out in the neighborhoods on a regular basis.
But the most important lesson to draw from the Camden experience is the most obvious: Police reform does happen. Arguments that American policing is rotten to its core and must be radically rethought aren’t historically informed.
Nor is Camden the only exemplar. De-escalation training has helped Miami-Dade County reduce the number of police shootings of mentally ill individuals. Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, a major corruption scandal rocked the NYPD about every 20 to 30 years. Think of the Frank Serpico revelations. Mayors Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg broke that cycle with deep reform. Police shootings in New York have dropped off a cliff since the early 1970s.
Anyone interested in making a constructive contribution to the current debate must push back against radicals’ dixie-cup mentality that says if a system isn’t working to everyone’s satisfaction, it must be tossed out wholesale. That’s not how Camden reformed policing, and it’s certainly not how we’ll keep cities safe in the future.
Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal and author of the 2019 issue brief “De-Municipalization: How Counties and States Can Administer Public Services in Distressed Cities.”
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