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Camden, N.J., received a new label this week. The city, long known for poverty and violence, was called a symbol of promise for the nation. That came from President Obama. He praised the efforts by police there to improve community relations. Camden still has a high crime rate, but the president says its progress makes it a model for others. NPR's Jeff Brady reports that changes in Camden start with officers on the street.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The first thing officer Virginia Matias does after driving to her assigned neighborhood is get out of her patrol car.
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BRADY: She walks down a street that used to be busy with people buying and selling drugs. Now it's a sleepier scene, with a few residents coming to the corner store. Matias greets the owner in Spanish.
VIRGINIA MATIAS: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).
MATIAS: I just asked him how was the business, and he says it's been calm. He hasn't had any problems.
BRADY: Daily conversations like this are one of the changes Camden made two years ago.
MATIAS: It's better to be walking around and talking to people than just passing by in the vehicle because you're not getting - really getting to know anyone if you're in your vehicle the whole time that you're patrolling.
BRADY: These foot patrols are all about building relationships, says Rutgers University criminology professor Louis Tuthill, and now he's researching what effect that has on crime rates.
LOUIS TUTHILL: And what I found was is that for all crimes, generally, the foot patrols decreased crime between about 10 percent and 19 percent, depending on the corner.
BRADY: Tuthill says some violent crime statistics fell the most.
TUTHILL: Robberies with a firearm had a decrease of 51 percent.
BRADY: That has longtime residents like Phyllis Perry feeling safer.
PHYLLIS PERRY: Wherever you walk around, there goes a cop, so it made a big difference.
BRADY: And are they in cars or walking around or what?
PERRY: They're walking. They're on bikes. They're in cars. They're everywhere.
BRADY: The city dissolved the police department in 2013, including the existing union contract, and let the county take over. With the savings, more officers were hired, and two police stations opened in neighborhoods, something Michael Horace appreciates.
MICHAEL HORACE: Now they're close by, so anything that goes on, they're right there. Any fights, gunshots, anything that is going on, within a matter of seconds, they're right there.
BRADY: In 2012, the year before these changes, there were 67 murders in Camden. Last year, that number fell by more than half. But with a long history of gang violence, residents like Virgilio Matias worry it won't last.
VIRGILIO MATIAS: But once - once they guys start fighting each other, there ain't going to be no peace out here.
BRADY: In the past when violence erupted, police would swarm the neighborhood, scaring everyone back into their homes, including law-abiding citizens. Now, Police Chief Scott Thomson says part of his job is to encourage residents to come back out, even in neighborhoods with a history of problems.
SCOTT THOMSON: We bring in ice cream trucks, and we'll put them on the corner and let the ice cream play. And then we put word out on social media, and we tell our community cops that when they're out there walking the beat to tell everybody, hey, come and get some free ice cream.
BRADY: Thomson says that helps reduce crime.
THOMSON: It makes it very difficult for the bad folks who like to operate with a sense of anonymity and like to own the streets. They're now the minority, surrounded by good people.
BRADY: And, he says, criminals no longer have the streets to themselves. Even as Camden is praised for changes like this, some critics still see evidence of old-school police tactics that they say don't work.
UDI OFER: We have serious concerns about the sharp increase in arrests and summonses for nonviolent petty offenses.
BRADY: Udi Ofer is executive director of The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
OFER: Summonses for tinted car windows increased 381 percent to just under a thousand, and disorderly conduct saw nearly a 43 percent increase in one year.
BRADY: The police say more officers mean more citations, and they're targeting the people who cause the most problems, but Ofer also notes excessive force complaints have risen. The experiment with new policing methods in Camden is only two years old. Ofer says before it's held up as a model for other cities, it deserves more examination. Jeff Brady, NPR News.
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