#What happened after Camden, NJ disbanded its police department

#What happened after Camden, NJ disbanded its police department

A once-crime-riddled New Jersey city disbanded its police department and formed a new one in 2013 — and this is what happened.

The story of Camden — a city of about 74,000 outside Philadelphia — is grabbing the national spotlight because of growing demands from activists to “defund” local police departments amid protests over the cop-brutality death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Floyd, who was black, died after a white cop knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes during a routine arrest — and Minneapolis’s City Council announced Sunday it had enough votes to disband its own police department.

Camden is smaller and more diverse ethnically than Minneapolis — but still provides an example of what the “defunding” of a department can look like, backers say.

Camden was wracking up a large murder tally and millions of dollars in policing debt amid widespread corruption when it dissolved its force and formed a new non-union one with a more “community-oriented” bent and anti-force stance seven years ago.

Since then, the city has seen its violent-crime rate plummet 42 percent, with killings going from 67 in 2012 to 25 last year, Bloomberg reported.

Meanwhile, excessive-force complaints against cops have dropped 95 percent since 2014, according to the police department.

“What we’re experiencing today in Camden is the result of many years of deposits in the relationship bank account,” said former Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson, who oversaw the department changeover before he left in 2019, to Bloomberg.

There are still plenty of officers on Camden’s streets, but changes were instituted that included efforts to boost department diversity, giving officers one of the clearest definitions of “reasonable force’’ in the country and telling them they can be fired if they stand by as another cop violates the rules.

On their first day on the job, Camden cops walk around their beat knocking on doors and asking residents for suggestions on how to improve things, CNN said.

Laying off unionized officers and rehiring them as county employees meant Camden also reduced officer pay and benefits, according to a 2014 report.

But the force has since unionized again, and costs have grown, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Camden budgeted $68.45 million for cops last year, while Paterson — which has twice the population — spends an estimated $44.72 million a year on police.

And critics have raised other issues.

The local NAACP chapter has decried the fact that local cops are now more likely to live in the suburbs — and still not be reflective of a whole of the city in terms of diversity.

“Ninety percent of Camden’s population is minority — we have a lot of young individuals who don’t look like us that are getting these jobs,” Kevin Barfield, the chapter’s president, told Bloomberg.

William Walls, 34, of Clayton, New Jersey shakes hands with Deputy Commissioner Melvin Singleton by City Hall in Philadelphia.
William Walls, 34, of Clayton, New Jersey shakes hands with Deputy Commissioner Melvin Singleton by City Hall in Philadelphia.Camden Courier-Post via AP

Community activist Ojii BaBa Madi agreed, telling CNN, “The demographics of the city do not reflect [department] demographics.

“With a white chief, as thoughtful and progressive as he is, and only one African American captain out of seven, both the dynamics and optics of race are a problem.”

Still, Madi acknowledged that relations have improved between cops and residents and that it “does feel much safer at the neighborhood level.”

He added that a police presence is here to stay in Camden — because there is still crime.

Camden is “far away from any practical de-policed reality,” the leader said.

Nyeema Watson, associate chancellor for civic engagement at Rutgers University-Camden, who lives in the city, said, “We can’t police our way out of social issues, unemployment, disproportionate health issues, economic challenges — these are things that drive crime.”


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