In Gritty Camden, N.J., Old-School Tactics And New Tech Cut Crime

A new crime-fighting strategy is showing early signs of hope in one New Jersey city. Camden has long been known as the home of intense poverty and crime. But since a new police force started walking the streets a few months ago, violent crime has dropped and many residents and officials say things are finally getting better.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Cities often strive to break records. But we have the story now of one city - Camden, N.J. - and the record it's trying desperately not to break: the record for most murders in a year.

2012 was a bad year for Camden and as Elizabeth Fiedler, of member station WHYY, reports, a new county police force is doing all it can to make 2013 safer.

ELIZABETH FIEDLER, BYLINE: On a wall in Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson's office hangs a painting of George Washington kneeling in the snow next to a horse.

SCOTT THOMSON: There was a leader that was up against what would seem to be an intractable situation - unbelievable odds.

FIEDLER: Thomson is a self-described man of faith, and it isn't lost on him that Washington is kneeling in prayer. Thomson, too, is faced with a great task - bringing a sense of safety to the notoriously dangerous city of Camden, N.J. The odds haven't smiled on Camden for quite a while. Last year, the city set a new record with 67 homicides, the worst since 1995.

To combat crime, Thomson says the department is trying a blend of old-school policing - getting officers out of their cars, and on to foot patrols; and newer technology - using microphones to record gunshots...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

FIEDLER: ...and cameras to capture license plate numbers and remotely keep an eye on the streets. Camden's made some inroads. Since the new police force took over, the long-ailing city's crime rate has fallen 15 percent. Homicides are down 22 percent, and burglaries dropped nearly 30 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKGROUND STREET NOISES)

FIEDLER: In one tough neighborhood, a bunch of little kids are playing football in a patch of grass. Camden County Commissioner Louis Cappelli Jr. says this is a sight he hasn't seen in years.

LOUIS CAPPELLI JR.: Folks have not felt safe enough to have their children playing in this park and now, with our police presence, there's a marked difference.

FIEDLER: Cappelli says people across the Garden State are looking at what's happening in Camden, where the city police force was dissolved along with the union contract earlier this year. County officials say Camden police were weighed down by the terms of that contract and that without it, they're able to put more officers out of the streets.

CAPPELLI: We will have 401 police officers, 100 civilians, at the same cost that Camden was paying to employ 260 police officers. And the salaries for the police officers that we brought over are the same as the salaries that they were being paid before. What we were able to do is to eliminate some of the frivolous financial terms that were developed over decades through labor negotiations.

FIEDLER: Others are not ready to declare victory.

JEFF PUTTHOFF: I'm one who doesn't believe that simply policing will change the violence.

FIEDLER: That's Father Jeff Putthoff, a Jesuit priest who runs the youth development program HopeWorks in Camden. He says there has been some improvement. Under the new police force, drug activity has shifted elsewhere. Still, he says Camden's huge challenges require more than a change in police tactics.

PUTTHOFF: People are getting their drugs in a different place now. I like that they're not right out front of our building as much. Do I believe that somehow, drug and drug selling has been eradicated in Camden? Not at all. And I mean, I think this is what happens when we chase behavior, and don't chase the underlying cause of what's going on.

FIEDLER: Back on the street, Camden patrolman Jarrod Broadway says he's trying to build the connection with the neighborhood. He says getting out of his car helps.

JARROD BROADWAY: People feel more comfortable approaching you. You're not driving by at 30 miles an hour, and just giving them a head nod. People know your name. They get to know you by face. So you're able to address the concerns that are evident a lot more easily.

FIEDLER: Business owners are taking notice, too. Al Rose has run this pharmacy for more than 40 years.

AL ROSE: We feel more secure. I think all our neighbors feel more secure. Our business has increased 20 percent or so, because of it. I'm seeing people I haven't seen in 15 years here.

FIEDLER: In Camden, the ravages of chronic violence have created a hunger for even modest improvement. Patrolman Broadway says since he came to the job, one thing has surprised him.

BROADWAY: Kids run up to you. They hug you - kids that you've never seen. And that's a little uneasy because their parents, a lot of times, have negative perceptions of the police.

FIEDLER: There are lots of ways to measure progress: crime rates, cash in Al Rose's register and surprise hugs, among others. Those who love Camden hope that after years of struggle, this city will draw new residents and businesses, and long-timers will feel more confident in their decision to stay.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler.

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