On a fall morning in South Jersey, Camden County Police Chief Gabriel Rodriguez walked between rows of recruits standing outside the police academy in Blackwood.

He smiled as he met one from East Camden, the same neighborhood where Rodriguez grew up. “So you definitely know who I am, right?” Rodriguez asked, so softly that almost nobody could hear. “Sir, yes, sir,” the young man replied.

A class that began with 48 people was down to fewer than 30 on that day in September. Still, Rodriguez told the men and women training to become officers in the city of Camden that he hoped he’d see each of them at graduation in February.

“We need you guys, bad,” said Rodriguez. He was 19 — the same age as some of the recruits — when he joined the force. “We need as much help as we can get.”

Now 38, Rodriguez is nearing the end of his first full year as head of the Camden police. Before he was sworn in on the last day of 2020, it had been 15 years since a Latino man or Camden native had served as chief.

The department has been in the spotlight in recent years, praised for its use of de-escalation tactics and held up by some as a model of reform. The face of that narrative had been the straitlaced, policy-minded chief J. Scott Thomson, who oversaw the 2013 dismantling of Camden’s police department and its remaking as a county-run force that flooded neighborhoods with young officers — a tumultuous era that preceded a decline in violent crime.

» READ MORE: Camden disbanded its police department and built a new one. Can others learn from it?

In contrast, Rodriguez quietly took the reins of the department. And he’s spent much of his first year making it a priority to talk to people all over Camden. Not that he doesn’t also want to keep seeing the crime rate drop.

“We’re going to continue that,” he said. “But I want to start involving the community more in the problem-solving of it.”

Camden officers have for years used neighborhood events as ways to build trust, and Thomson routinely met with community groups. But such outreach comes more naturally for Rodriguez as a native son with deep ties. He plays basketball with teenagers, takes selfies with former classmates, and was seen line dancing at a neighborhood cookout. He laughs a lot.

“I have to be me,” he said in an interview.

Still, Rodriguez says his job is to continue the work started by Thomson, whose promotion in 2008 marked the department’s sixth leadership change in six years.

Even as homicides and shootings in Philadelphia climbed to record heights in 2020 and 2021, violent crime across the river stayed level. Camden police credit Thomson’s strategies, like a strong street presence and officers trained to defuse conflict.

Rodriguez’s other mission is to get locals to join the department. He knows many young adults mistrust law enforcement, but he reminds them he grew up as they have: seeing chalk marks on sidewalks, hearing gunfire at night, and scrounging dinner from friends’ houses when he was hungry.

Pamela Grayson-Baltimore, a social worker with the public defender office’s juvenile unit and a Camden native, said the department looks different with Rodriguez at the top.

“It really can be that simple,” she said. “He looks like me, he’s from Camden, and he’s in charge.”

The department’s controversial makeover

Camden is about nine square miles. More than half of its 73,000 residents are Latino or Hispanic, and more than 40% are Black.

Though Rodriguez now lives just outside the city, his parents live in Camden. He has three daughters and 10 siblings and half-siblings, the youngest an officer in the department.

He grew up in the McGuire Gardens projects, avoiding drug dealers when he walked to school, and seeing his first shooting at age 8 while riding his bike. Some of his childhood friends were shooting victims, and others became fellow officers.

As a rookie officer, he believed “old-school” ideas about crime-fighting.

“I thought the way to change Camden was to arrest as many people as I could,” he said. He soon realized that, often, two drug dealers were ready to step in for every one dealer he arrested. “Meanwhile, he gets out with a record, a debt to work off, possibly a price on his head that leads to more violence.”

Rodriguez worked in community policing, as a detective and then on the SWAT team. He lost his job in 2011 when budget cuts decimated the department, ushering in a crime wave. He was recalled, then laid off again in 2013 when the department was disbanded.

The county-run department patrols only Camden and was created with little public input, angering many in the city. Citing the crime spike, county leaders and George E. Norcross III, the South Jersey businessman and political power broker, said a less burdensome union contract would allow for more officers. Then-Chief Thomson also saw an opportunity to elevate officers he’d identified as leaders. Rodriguez was among the first rehired.

Some residents called the new cops aggressive; in the early years the force drew a slew of excessive-force complaints. Those complaints have dwindled, county officials say. Camden’s officers have been using body cameras for five years, and the department revamped its use-of-force policy.

Rodriguez says he has his own ideas about how to improve the department. But Kevin Barfield, a longtime Camden activist and former president of the Camden County NAACP, fears Rodriguez will always have to yield first to the county leaders who put him in the job instead of make decisions based on what is best for Camden.

“There is a personal investment from him in this community, and I commend that,” Barfield said. “I commend his efforts in getting the youth to see what is possible. But at the end of the day, the people who are in charge still dictate what he can and can’t do.”

The next generation

Camden’s challenges remain: deep poverty, struggling schools, high unemployment. Community leaders say the violent drug industry continues to thrive, but a strong street presence by officers has driven much of the activity indoors.

Rodriguez is also a visible presence, and he uses those moments to pitch careers in law enforcement. At a community basketball game hosted by the department in North Camden in August, Rodriguez fist-bumped with kids on a bleacher and asked them about joining the force.

“You can help me change policing,” he told them.

Recruitment challenges are a nationwide problem. In Camden, the ranks have often fallen short of the goal of 400. In past years, critics described the department as a training ground for white officers who would then leave for jobs in quieter towns.

Officials have blamed the state civil-service requirement for limiting their hiring capabilities, but recently, the department has found a way around it. A pilot program allows recruits to become junior officers with limited powers before becoming full patrol officers, and this year dozens of Camden recruits enrolled in the academy without taking the test.

Now, half of Camden’s officers are people of color, said county spokesperson Dan Keashen. Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed legislation requiring the Civil Service Commission to make changes aimed at encouraging diversity.

Rodriguez has been approached by teenagers who say they don’t know what to do after high school. He tells them about the starting salary for officers, the pension.

“And I tell them: ‘I’m from Camden too. We gotta represent,’” Rodriguez said. “‘When I leave, you gotta take my place.’”