Camden police respond to a fatal shooting in 2008. 10 years later, the police force is transformed and murders like these are in decline. Ted Aurig/AP

Often ranked as one of the deadliest cities in America, Camden, New Jersey, ended 2017 with its lowest homicide rate since the 1980s.

When Camden, New Jersey’s Chief of Police J. Scott Thomson joined the Camden police force as an officer 25 years ago, there were 175 open-air drug markets lining just nine square miles of streets. The murder rates in this city of 75,000 just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia regularly climbed to more than six times the national average. “Criminals operated with impunity,” Thomson said.

After a particularly deadly year in 1995, Camden’s Cathedral of Immaculate Conception began illuminating one candle for each homicide victim. In 2012, the year ended with 67 candles—a rate of about 87 murders per 100,000 residents, which ranked Camden fifth nationwide.

But on New Year’s 2018, just 22 candles were lit: The city’s murder rate fell to its lowest since 1987. The number of annual killings has been in decline since 2012; so have robberies, aggravated assaults, violent crimes, property crimes, and non-fatal shooting incidents.  

So what’s happening in this city, which for many years has been deemed among the dangerous in America? Thomson, who took the helm of the Camden police force in 2008, says the biggest factor may have been the change in structure of the department itself. In 2013, the Camden Police Department was disbanded, reimagined, and born again as the Camden County Police Department, with fewer officers, lower pay—and a strategic shift toward “community policing.”

That meant focusing on rebuilding trust between the community and their officers.

“For us to make the neighborhood look and feel the way everyone wanted it to, it wasn’t going to be achieved by having a police officer with a helmet and a shotgun standing on a corner,” Thomson said. Now, he wants his officers “to identify more with being in the Peace Corps than being in the Special Forces.”

A conversation with Thomson about community policing is likely to involve many such catchy maxims. “Destabilized communities,” he told me, “need guardians, not warriors.” He explained the “Back to the Future Paradox”—use technology wisely, but pair it with regular-old “Bobbies on the street.” And he stressed the idea that public safety is about access to social services, economic rejuvenation, and good schools, not just cops: “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

It’s policing turned poetry, and his officers, too, have internalized it in their training. “The old police mantra was make it home safely,” Camden police officer Tyrell Bagby told the New York Times in April. “Now we’re being taught not only should we make it home safely, but so should the victim and the suspect.”

According to Camden’s mayor, Frank Moran, this ethos also extends outside of patrol hours. “These guys are more than just reporting 9-to-5 in uniform,” he told me. “They’re taking their own time and being mentors in the community. That speaks volumes.”

Thomson characterizes the 2013 overhaul as “hitting the reset button.” To hear him describe it, the turn towards community-cop symbiosis was like flicking a switch. “We were able to do in three days what it took three years to do before,” he said.

Camden is now something of a showroom for community policing techniques. Officers are trained to use handguns and handcuffs only as tools of last resort. To increase accountability, members of the department are equipped with GPS tracking devices, and many wear body cameras that were designed in 2016 with community input. The impact of body cameras on police officers is disputed and inconclusive, but the hope is that they encourage officers not to use force unnecessarily.

“It’s more of a protect-and-serve approach to dealing with the residents, rather than kicking down doors and locking our way out of the problem,” said Moran.

In 2015, President Obama met with Camden kids and cops at a community center to support the city’s trust-building policing approach. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

According to Phil Goff, a policing equity professor at John Jay College and a principal investigator for the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, other cities can look to places like Camden for tips on how to build community-responsive criminal justices systems. He enumerates some core principles: To get people on your side as a police officer, be transparent about why you’re pulling them over (“sell the stop”), and explain how your job works. Knock on doors; walk the streets. In Camden, that approach seems to be showing some results.

“When you have that as a value within your organization, the community tends to know. You can feel the difference,” Goff said. “[The community is] able to collaborate with law enforcement. You empower them to take care of themselves.”

Overall, many U.S. cities have been experiencing a decline in violent crime, according to a Brennan Center for Justice report released in December. Some are seeing historically low violent crime rates, and community policing techniques are sharing the credit. In New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push to replace stop-and-frisk policies with targeted anti-gang actions has been linked to New York's falling murder numbers—this year, the city posted its lowest number since World War II. New Haven, Connecticut, hit its own 50-year low—only seven homicides this year, down from the 13 in 2016. There, they thank a new initiative called “Project Longevity,” which emphasizes information-sharing between officers and again de-emphasizes stop-and-frisk.

Other cities are still struggling. Kansas City, Columbus, Phoenix, and Birmingham saw homicide rates reach new highs in 2017. In Baltimore, homicides hit a new per-capita peak.

What does this all add up to? That’s not yet clear. Assessing individual cities’ yearly crime statistics (or individual years’ city-level crimes) can be inherently misleading, says Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Justice Program. “What’s been happening over [the last three years] have been short-term ups and downs,” she said. “So it’s still hard to tell whether there’s actually something going on or whether those are just blips.”

Ames Grawert, the Brennan Justice Center’s counsel, voices a similar concern. “It’s easy to extrapolate from a single year of data to a trend, but that’s not always true,” he said. “Cities big and small both experience normal fluctuations in crime rates over the years.”

That might be the case with Camden’s homicide drop, which, while encouraging, has hardly transformed the city’s overall numbers. “It’s progress, it’s not success,” Thomson said. “We still have extreme challenges that keep us up at night and spring us out of bed in the morning.”

Indeed, Camden’s violent crime rate in 2017 remained dire enough to place the city at number four on Neighborhood Scout’s annual list of America’s most dangerous cities. The number of nonfatal shooting hit incidents has dropped 45 percent since 2012—but is back up in 2017 from last year’s levels. Meanwhile, aggravated assaults with a firearm have gotten more frequent in the past three years.

The numbers themselves can be potentially misleading: Homicide rates, for example, aren’t necessarily a complete measure of urban violence. Just because fewer people are dying from gunshot wounds doesn’t mean fewer people are getting shot: It could also mean they’re getting better treatment, faster. One of Thomson’s Camden policies, nicknamed “Scoop and Go,” may be at work here, which mandates officers to personally drive victims to the hospital if ambulance wait times are too long. That saves lives, without really addressing the source of the violence itself. (Another possible factor: More victims are just getting to the hospital faster by calling an Uber.)

Criminal justice experts also warn against jumping to conclusions regarding causation. “I think people are very quick to look for a singular explanation, and so a lot of people have blamed”—or thanked—“policing reforms, but I don’t think it’s that simple,” said the Brennan Center’s Chettiar.

Goff agrees. The national experiment in community policing is young, and the available data pool is small. “We just don’t have good data on how changes in policing produce changes in these kinds of outcomes,” he said. “[W]hat we haven’t had until now is a comprehensive test of all that in one place—Camden allows for an anecdote about that.”

Camden’s experience since 2012 could help buttress the case for more, similar reforms. With the DOJ’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice—an Obama-era holdover—Goff has been working to build a research base of more case studies, piloting community policing strategies in six cities, from Birmingham to Stockton.

But President Trump’s far-less-accommodating DOJ has announced its intention to start scaling back on the Collaborative Reform Initiative, which used federal oversight to encourage community policing in U.S. cities, and the department does not intend to increase funding for the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Several cities whose police forces were in the process of implementing reforms with the support of these programs have seen those efforts stall.

Five years after launching Camden’s reforms, Thomson is quick to agree that the city’s public safety improvements have not been a unilateral effort. Investments in the local economy, workforce development, and education have gotten offenders off the streets. An aggressive razing campaign removed blighted abandoned properties that once housed drug dealers and users. Mayor Moran says they have invested $8 to 10 million in the demolition program so far, and he plans to continue eliminating stash houses this year.

There’s a lot left to do, but Thomson is convinced the city’s turned a corner. “The statistics are one thing, but how the people in my city measure public safety is not on a piece of paper,” he said. “It’s by what they sense when they open their front door. And that’s where the change in the city is absolutely visceral.”

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