How A New Police Force In Camden Helped Turn The City Around

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It's been more than a year since the city of Camden, N.J., dissolved its police force, replacing it with a new county-run department. Police Chief J. Scott Thomson explains those changes.


When we last spoke with police chief Scott Thomson in 2012, the city of Camden, New Jersey, was at a low point. It had one of the highest crime rates in the country, and it was broke. At the time, Chief Thomson said he didn't have enough officers in Camden to answer all the 911 calls.


SCOTT THOMSON: We don't have property crime detectives anymore. You know, I have shooting investigations that are backlogging, like, burglary cases.

CORNISH: Well, we were pretty intrigued when we read in the New York Times this weekend about Camden's turnaround. So, we reached chief Thomson again.

THOMSON: We've reduced violent crime 22 percent in the last year alone. When you look at our shootings, we've cut them in half compared to last year, and we've cut our murders in half when compared to 2012.

CORNISH: So, what happened? Camden dissolved its entire Police Department and in 2013, a new Camden County Police force was born. The police have a new union and a new contract. The county force has almost twice the number of officers the city force had. And Chief Thomson says the key has been community policing.

THOMSON: It's collaboration and dialogue. And I think that some of the things that we have seen in our country over the last several weeks with regards to policing and some of the shortfalls that we have had is the dialogue - is you can never go wrong with enhanced dialogue. And as long as the people in the community know you they're - they're going to be more likely to trust you.

And one thing that we have found for certain is that nothing builds trust like human contact, which means police officers have to get out of their squad cars. They need to introduce themselves to the people that live in the neighborhoods that we're charged with securing, and let them know that the things that matter most to them, matter most to us. And they'll be our priorities. And we're looking to address them in a meaningful way.

CORNISH: Now, under the old contract the average cost to the city for a police officer was estimated to be 180,000. Now it's 93,000, and that's a cost that's spread countywide, right? It's not the city. Can you talk about how the price came down?

THOMSON: What was the cost driver with the city police department were the work roles and the contract - the collective bargaining agreement. So, when we're able to establish the new organization with essentially no binding work rules or no hamstringing contract, it gave us the ability to put the number of officers that we need on the street - at the same time hire the number of support personnel that we need to be able to give our cops the ability to be do the best job they can out in the field.

You know, at the beginning of this, the one thing that we had said throughout was, there should only be two people that resist the paradigm shift that we were looking at public safety, and that was criminals and funeral directors 'cause they were the only two people that were going to lose out.

CORNISH: So, when you dissolved the police department initially, it's a nuclear option of sorts, right? I mean those contracts go away - the contracts that you consider a burden. What would your response be, though, to municipalities or city officials around the country who look at what Camden has done, and they see that getting rid of a city union is a kind of solution?

THOMSON: Well, initially our leaders, including myself, tried to attempt - exhaust every option up unto that point. But there does get to be a point in time when the moral imperative outweighs everything else. And when you have people that are being victimized at Third World country rates, something needs to be done about that.

And I can tell you from our experiences that starting with a clean slate and taking a regional approach to this is - number one it's given us a tremendous return on our efficiency and effectiveness, but it's also going to enhance the level of safety that we have in our region as well.

CORNISH: This is a department that you started out in, correct?

THOMSON: That is correct. I've been a Camden City police officer for more than two decades.

CORNISH: What's it like now being chief - going through this process when you walk the streets, does it feel any different?

THOMSON: Well, it does. And, you know, I came up through the ranks, and my roots are from the city of Camden. My grandfather worked at the shipyard. My grandmother worked at RCA. I graduated, my kindergarten class right down there at Sacred Heart with Monsignor Doyle. And, you know, there's people I love that are in the city. There's people I have made commitments to on many levels to try and enhance their quality of life.

This is not about us going in and doing mass arrests or sweeps or, you know, packing the county jail full of people. That's not going to work here. It's never worked before, and we're not looking to repeat the failures of history. This is about leveraging the greatest force multiplier there is which is the people themselves.

CORNISH: Camden obviously will still have its difficulties. Federal agents arrested more than 20 people this past spring in an enormous drug crackdown. What are some of the challenges you see going forward?

THOMSON: You know, there are really root causes that develop the symptoms that we treat on a daily basis. Sixty-eight percent, the nation's high, we have single-parent households. You got a school system that is doing tremendous things right now to reverse what was once a 70 percent dropout rate.

And personal addictions, unemployment, poverty and - we can go on and on. And it's, you know - Camden is in many regards - it's the perfect storm of societal ills and the challenges that come from that. So, you know, we're not going to arrest our way out of this. Nor are we the panacea to making Camden what it needs to be and can be. But we're in a very important cog in the wheel.

CORNISH: Police Chief Scott Thomson. He's head of the Camden County Metropolitan Police Department. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

THOMSON: Thank you ma'am.

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