CAMDEN, N.J. – Across the river from Philadelphia sits the nearly 200-year-old city of Camden, New Jersey, at one time called “the most dangerous city in America.”
“This city has been riddled with drugs,” said resident Mark Hansen.
About 74,000 people live there. Seven years ago, amid a budget crisis and a spiking murder rate, the mayor and police chief, as well as local and state lawmakers and then-Governor Chris Christie, among others, joined together and disbanded the city’s police department.
“We had 67 murders in 2012, which put the murder rate higher than some third world nations. So, a change had to come,” said Louis Cappelli, Jr., Camden County’s freeholder director, which is a job similar to a county commissioner.
It’s a position Cappelli also held when the city police department ceased to exist and was replaced with a brand-new county police department.
“We started with two main objectives,” Cappelli said. “Number one was to reduce the number of crime victims and number two is to make the residents of the city feel safe.”
So, what happened to the city police officers? With the union dismantled, all of them -- from the chief on down -- had to reapply for their positions with the Camden County Police Department (CCPD).
Not everyone got their job back, but Capt. Zsakhiem James did.
“Couldn't see myself being a cop anywhere else,” he said. “This is my home.”
However, the policing Capt. James knew then underwent a complete change. All the officers went through new training – focusing foremost on community policing and de-escalation, where the use of force becomes a last resort.
“We stress interaction with people on a positive note. We reward that,” Capt. James said. “As opposed to just the traditional rewards for drug and gun arrests and solving violent crimes, we also reward officers for being integral parts of the community.”
In the years since the changes, according to the CCPD, Camden’s crime rate fell. Since 2014, violent crime is down 36% and murders are down a whopping 72%.
Not so fast said Camden County NAACP President Kevin Barfield.
“Crime statistics throughout the state, in the United States, have went down over the years,” Barfield said. “So, can we truly contribute that to policing or a police model?”
He is also concerned that the county police department lacks diversity in the ranks. Minorities make up about half the force and few are part of the higher ranks, in a city where 95% of the residents are either African American or Hispanic.
“The problem is that the police department does not reflect the community that it serves,” Barfield said.
That matters a lot, according to Dr. Nyeema Watson, head of civic engagement at Rutgers University’s Camden campus.
“We still want to see broad swaths of diversity in all ways - because until there is a deep cultural shift, not only in policing but against systematic oppression of blacks, we're still going to have a fear and mistrust of the police,” Dr. Watson said.
County officials say they are working to address that issue but add that the changes in policing in Camden shouldn’t be discounted. As for cities considering revamping their own police departments, each had some advice to offer.
“Give the community the opportunity to vote,” said the NAACP’s Kevin Barfield. “When we change things, we need to make sure that those who are most vulnerable, that we still make sure that they have a voice.”
For freeholder Louis Cappelli, what happened in Camden may not apply everywhere.
“It's not one size fits all,” he said. “What we're doing here works well for us. So, you have to mold it and craft it to the needs and particular circumstances of your city.”
Dr. Nyeema Watson cautions that change takes time and hard work.
“This isn't going to happen overnight,” she said. “So, this is a long haul that communities will really have to engage in.”
All are words born of experience from those who’ve been there.