How the city of Camden changed its approach to policing : The Indicator from Planet Money The city of Camden, New Jersey is cited as an example of how cities can change their approach to policing. But the story of Camden and its cops isn't a simple one.
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A Tale Of Two Camdens

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A Tale Of Two Camdens

A Tale Of Two Camdens

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This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. The city of Camden has been coming up a lot in recent weeks because of its police force. Camden is a city of roughly 70,000 people in southern New Jersey. And a few years ago it had one of the highest rates of crime in the country, and its police department was notoriously corrupt. So in 2013 Camden, N.J., defunded its police department. They dissolved the department and rebuilt it from scratch. Since then, crime has plummeted. Police-community relations have drastically improved. And many cities across the U.S. are now looking to Camden as a model for how to improve their own police departments. Still, many residents of Camden say the numbers are not telling the whole story.

Today on the show, a tale of two Camdens. We look at what happened in the city of Camden and its police department, what changed and what didn't.


VANEK SMITH: The tension between the residents of Camden, N.J., and its police department stemmed back to an incident in 1971, when a police officer beat a Latino man to death, sparking days of riots. Oji Baba Madi is a minister at Asbury Community Church. He's a lifelong Camden resident, and he remembers that moment very clearly.

OJI BABA MADI: I just remember, as a 10-year-old kid, sitting on my porch in fear, watching the orange glow from the downtown burning. It was the beginning of Camden's many traumas.

VANEK SMITH: Oji says the relationship between the police and the residents of Camden, N.J., got even worse during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

MADI: The police force was very seriously corrupted by the massive amounts of money that flowed through our criminal drug organizations in the city.

VANEK SMITH: Did it seem - like, did encounters with police change? Like, did the feeling that you got when you saw the policemen change?

MADI: Yes, it did. There was a point in Camden where I trusted the drug dealers more than I trusted the police.


MADI: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: Why was that?

MADI: I knew what they were about. The police, where I would expect them to be sincere and have some integrity in what they did, so often just did not.

VANEK SMITH: The problem got worse and worse. By 2013, things had gotten so bad, the city of Camden actually just disbanded its police department. Louis Capelli is a county executive for Camden. He was there at the time.

LOUIS CAPELLI: The situation was that Camden was in a fiscal and public safety crisis. So the decision was made to come up with a solution, and that solution was to wipe the slate clean and start with a new department.

VANEK SMITH: The county took over the policing of the city of Camden. Louis Capelli and his team started from scratch. They installed cameras everywhere so they could monitor areas from afar. They hired new officers, rehired some of the old ones. And they focused on training.

CAPELLI: Community policing training, de-escalation training. And we've also developed policies that have been very helpful in gaining the trust of the residents of the city.

VANEK SMITH: To regain that trust, Louis and his team tried to make sure the police force was a part of the community in a way that it just hadn't been before.

CAPELLI: We have pop-up block parties, ice cream nights for kids, movie nights for families. So we try to have as much positive contact between the department and the residents as possible. That's how you build trust. That's how you build a partnership.

VANEK SMITH: Also, Louis says they just put a lot more cops in the city of Camden.

CAPELLI: We've tripled the number of police officers on the street.

VANEK SMITH: Louis says it's worked. Complaints about excessive force from police officers fell by 95%. The crime rate in Camden basically fell in half. The murder rate has dropped by nearly 70%. These changes, though, have not come cheap. Louis says the county invests around $70 million policing Camden every year, and that is a lot. Remember; the city of Camden only has around 70,000 residents, so that translates into about a thousand dollars per person. That makes it one of the most expensive cities to police per capita. Still, Louis says the transformation in the city of Camden has been worth it.

CAPELLI: In 2012, parents would not allow their kids to walk to school alone. Adults were afraid to walk to local markets. Basically, everybody stayed in the house. The difference now is kids walk to school. The residents have taken back the streets.

VANEK SMITH: Now police departments across the country are looking to Camden as a model of how to turn around the relationship between police and a community, and that worries lifelong Camden resident Oji Baba Madi. He says the situation of policing in Camden isn't so simple. He says the crime statistics are real and significant and represent a huge improvement, but he says they're also a little deceptive. Other statistics paint a more complicated picture.

MADI: There's this story of this great relationship. And, yes, they throw barbecues, and they give soft serve ice cream. And there is some intention now that the contact with the citizens is more civil. It's more professional. And I do have to applaud that. But when you look at the per capita arrests, it's still very high. It's still very high in shootings. We still have too many murders. So the whole romantic notion that Camden has somehow solved this problem of policing is, again, mythology.

VANEK SMITH: Oji says he thinks the focus of the county has been too much on law and order, and as a result, the city is overpoliced.

You mentioned arrests and crime. It sort of seems like, oh, well, more police should equal less crime. And if there are a lot of arrests, it seems like there should be more police.

MADI: No because often, arresting feeds a culture of criminality because when people are arrested, they lose jobs. I recently had a young man who was arrested for something pretty minor, and he lost his job. And so now he's in arrears in his child support payment, so he gets arrested again because he's in arrears. And so often, it initiates this vicious cycle. And so that's why many of us are saying, let's have some genuine defunding of the police so that we can address some of these other issues more effectively.

VANEK SMITH: Oji says instead of spending $70 million just on police, he'd like to see some of that money funneled to community programs and to leaders who could actually help prevent crime and reduce the need for police. He thinks that would cause crime to go down and the number of arrests to go down. Louis Capelli with the county of Camden says yes, there is a lot more work to be done, but he thinks the key to change is through better policing. He says the new police force definitely isn't perfect. Still, he says it represents a true transformation for the city and for the relationship between Camden and its police. He thinks it really could be a model for the rest of the country.

CAPELLI: It's constantly a work in progress. We still have a long way to go, but we know we're moving in the right direction.

VANEK SMITH: Louis says they've recently created a very rigorous use of force policy, and he says they're currently working on recruiting more officers of color and more local Camden residents onto the force. Camden resident Oji Baba Madi supports these measures, but he says all of that money could be going to places that he thinks would be more effective. He points to one program that he helped organize that works with high school dropouts in Camden, getting them into trade school or helping them get their GED.

MADI: We were able to elevate over 5,000 people in a city to a position where they could go on to community college, trade school, what have you. And one of the best ways to prevent crime is to give people a job. Give people a job.

VANEK SMITH: Oji says that program and others like it aren't getting any government money at all.

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen, fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.


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