Camden, New Jersey was known as the murder capital of the world. The city, which is only across the river from Philadelphia, was the site of countless violent crimes and was seen as a haven for police brutality. Their police department was one of the most corrupt in the nation, and their constant presence on the streets made for a more hostile environment. However, the City of Camden did not set out to create a more ethical police force.
They were forced to in 2010 when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the city after evidence showed they had planted drugs on a citizen. After this case was opened, 185 criminal cases were dismissed, three officers were indicted, and 88 convictions were overturned, leading to a settlement of $3.5 million being paid to the victims. After widespread corruption was exposed, the City of Camden effectively dissolved their police department and created a new one through the county.
In 2013, the new Camden County police department took over from where the original department left off. One of the first qualifying differences of this new department was the makeup of the officers. They were younger, more diverse and a majority of them were from the area they were serving. The City of Camden is almost entirely made up of black and Latino citizens. By making the police force look and act like the citizens in their community, they were hoping to create a force based around community enforcement.
All of the officers had been newly trained in the ways of the new department, which prioritized strict use of force standards and de-escalation techniques. The officers were instructed to leave their cars and walk around the neighborhoods in order to create a more trusting environment between citizens and police.
In 2015, the department showed the effects of their new form of policing. A man wielding a knife threatened a fast-food employee and then walked into the street slashing the weapon in the air. Most US departments would see this as perfect reasoning to shoot and kill a person. Even the police department of State College saw this as cause in the 2019 killing of Osaze Osagie. However, the officers in the Camden County police department created a ring around the man and walked with him for blocks until he agreed to drop the weapon.
That event is just a representation of the positive change intentional police reform made on a department, but the systemic changes made in the community were even greater. NBC reported in 2017 that since 2014 murder rates went down 69%, and robberies went down 33%. However, the best example of the strides made when people trust their local police departments is that reported rapes went up 143%. While that may sound like a negative, it actually shows that citizens are more comfortable reporting sensitive crimes with faith that the department will help them.
You may be thinking, “That’s all good, but what can we learn from that.” The Camden County police department showed that there are tangible things departments can do to reform their departments in the status quo, and give Americans a roadmap for what they can advocate for in this next election.
1. Create National Use of Force Standards
The Camden County police department made use of force as the last option for all of their officers and they have been known to punish those who use it unnecessarily. Their use of force policy is 18 detailed pages that outlines every individual incident, and whether or not the use of force would be appropriate.
2. Bust, or at least regulate, Police Unions
American police unions have been known to vehemently defend officers against any form of discipline, no matter their actions. The current head of the Minneapolis Police Union, Bob Kroll, once said that he sees complaints against police like fouls in a basketball game. “If you’re not getting any fouls, you’re not working hard enough,” said Kroll. After the murder of George Floyd, he sent out a memo to Minneapolis officers claiming that Floyd had a violent criminal history not being reported on. Part of what the new Camden County police department had to do was bust these unions that were allowing the corruption to remain and grow in Camden.
3. Form departments that reflect a commitment to community policing
One of the situations that was brought to light after the riots in Baltimore due to the police killing of Freddie Gray was that many officers do not live anywhere near the areas they serve. This causes them to have little to no empathy for the people they are supposed to be protecting and to fear them to a certain degree. Intentionally recruiting officers from the area and molding the racial makeup of a department to reflect the racial makeup of its city is crucial to creating mutual respect between police and citizens.
These three changes will not fix everything. There is still implicit bias in a majority of US police departments, and even in Camden, there have still been reports of police misconduct. However, these changes are the quickest ways we can see real change in our communities and push towards police departments that truly protect and serve.