While force after force turns turns to militarization (and thus intimidation), Camden, N.J. has embraced community policing:
It has been 16 months since Camden took the unusual step of eliminating its police force and replacing it with a new one run by the county. Beleaguered by crime, budget cuts and bad morale, the old force had all but given up responding to some types of crimes.
But mostly, the police have changed their culture. Officers have been moved from desk jobs and squad cars onto walking beats, in what Chief J. Scott Thomson likens to a political campaign to overcome years of mistrust. Average response time is now 4.4 minutes, down from more than 60 minutes, and about half the average in many other cities. The number of open-air drug markets has been cut nearly in half. The department, the Camden County Police, even created its first cold-case unit.
In June and July, the city went 40 days without a homicide — unheard-of in a Camden summer. The empty liquor bottles once clustered on the porches of abandoned houses as memorials to the murdered have disappeared. There are fewer killings to commemorate. The city is beginning to brush up its image….
They’ve committed to a culture of true community policing:
….the improvements have come faster than anyone predicted. And while the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., has drawn attention to long-simmering hostilities between police departments and minority communities, Camden is becoming an example of the opposite.
“We’re not going to do this by militarizing streets,” Chief Thomson said. Instead, he sent officers to knock on doors and ask residents their concerns. He lets community leaders monitor surveillance cameras from their home computers to help watch for developing crime.
The police have held meet-the-officer fairs at parks and churches, attended baseball games and sent Mister Softee trucks into neighborhoods. Officers stand at school crossings and on corners where drugs and violence flourished. Chief Thomson’s theory is that in a city of 77,000, there are thousands more well-intentioned people than bad, and that the police must enlist them to take back the streets.
“For a city to be prosperous, it needs to be safe and busy,” he said. “The police are a variable in that equation, but we are just one variable.” He tells his officers that he measures their success not in tickets written, but in the number of children riding bicycles on the street.
“It’s absolutely a different place,” said Tim Gallagher, a social worker who works with students. “You feel safe walking the streets now. The police officers aren’t afraid to come out of their cars and interact with the community, and that’s changed how people feel about them.”
Last month, he watched as officers got out of a squad car where teenagers were playing football in a narrow street. He feared they might break up the game. Instead, they challenged the teenagers to a push-up contest. (The police won, 45-43.)
“The police are working hard not to intimidate people so they don’t have to intimidate people,” Mr. Gallagher said.
Much remains to do, but this is the way to do it.