As Philadelphia shot up in flames Saturday, and cops forcefully cracked down on residents protesting police brutality and the killing of George Floyd, Camden decided to take a different path.
There, the city’s officers, including Police Chief Joe Wysocki, locked arms with activists, clergy, and other protesters, and joined in the call for justice for Floyd, the Minnesota black man who was killed after Derek Chauvin, a city police officer, kneeled on his neck while Floyd gasped for air and said, “I can’t breathe.”
“I wanted the unity,” Wysocki said in an interview. “I was looking for peace. People had to be able to speak their mind, they had to be able to vent.”
Saturday saw a nation engulfed in tension, as cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Atlanta saw protests against police killings escalate and turn into widespread looting and violence. But Camden march organizers noted the partnership they had with the city’s police force led to a much more peaceful day of protest.
“They didn’t try to use their authority to control the crowds," march organizer Yolanda Deaver, 36, said. “They made it about the people, about how we feel. They stood with us.”
Hundreds turned out for the Camden march, which stretched from Mount Ephraim Avenue to the city’s police administration building. Members of the clergy called for unity, while activists called for people to put aside their differences and work together to reform the criminal justice system. More than 30 officers stood in unison with marchers and shouted slogans like “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police.”
After the march ended, law enforcement capitalized on the positive tone of the day and continued engaging with community residents throughout the evening.
“We had pop-up barbecues. We cooked hamburgers, we cooked hot dogs, and we gave out ice cream,” Wysocki said. “We were trying to connect with residents in a positive way.”
Connecting with residents and standing with the community while they express their grievances toward police is a fundamental part of the Camden Police Department’s strategy of “community policing," according to Wysocki.
“You have to build the trust,” he said. “The younger generation, they’re upset, and rightfully so. ... You can’t fix that overnight.”
The department has been recognized in recent years for its wholesale reform of police operations to be one built on the principles of deescalation. Wysocki noted that in Camden, officers undergo constant training in how to alleviate tension with words and intervene in situations where fellow officers might become overly hostile while making arrests.
“When you have someone in crisis, it’s better to talk to them and calm them down if possible,” Wysocki said. “Time is on our side to slow things down. It’s really important to try to stop force from ever having to be used.”
The department also revamped its use-of-force policy last August, which Wysocki says would reduce the chances that an incident like Floyd’s death would happen in Camden.
“You’re not allowed to choke,” Wysocki said of his department’s policy. “The officers that were there in Minnesota had a duty to intervene.”
March participants, including activists and clergy, reveled in the day of unity.
“It was a collaborative approach,” Minister Wasim Muhammed, 53, of Camden said. “The community shouldn’t know you when it’s just an arrest. We know each other and have conversations. ... We as a community decide to come together.”
Amid the positivity in Camden, many watched as violence unfolded across the river in Philadelphia, where police cars burned, storefronts were shattered, and a curfew was strongly enforced by law enforcement. Some had words of advice for their neighboring city’s police force.
“Philadelphia really doesn’t have a great history … going back toward Rizzo days,” Muhammed said, referring to the city’s former police commissioner, Frank Rizzo. “Start doing more engagement with the community.”