As fires burned and Philadelphia police clashed with protesters, across the river during the last two weeks, Camden remained calm. It had its own protest, but Police Chief Joe Wysocki marched in front.

Camden was once known as the nation’s poorest and most dangerous city, where police brutality sparked riots in the 1960s and ’70s. But over the last seven years, the small city has drawn national attention for its policing.

When the Minneapolis City Council pledged this week to disband that city’s troubled police department, some law enforcement experts and others pointed to Camden, which in 2013 dismantled the city police in favor of a county-run force. A crop of new officers was hired and trained in deescalation tactics and community policing. Violent crime has dropped.

“This has been sustainable through the empowerment of the community,” said former Chief Scott Thomson, who held the position from 2008 until he stepped down last year. “As soon as they felt they had a department they could trust and work with, it was their work that reclaimed the city."

But as cities such as Minneapolis and Philadelphia consider reforms in the wake of protests over the police killing of George Floyd, some Camden residents caution against using their city’s unique story as a playbook.

The Camden County police force was created with little public input, using political muscle and a process some called union-busting. And though many residents now agree the department has reduced crime and improved relationships with the community, mistrust lingers, and despite efforts to diversify, the force remains whiter than the largely nonwhite city it serves.

“Their hearts and heads have been in the right place,” Ojii Baba Madi, a 59-year-old pastor known in the city for his work with youth, said of the past and present police chiefs. “I know they want to do the right things. We see that. But the question remains: Can we make even greater changes that we need in order to assure us that another Minneapolis won’t happen here?”

‘A tumultuous time’

In Philadelphia, a progressive City Council and the political climate have opened the door to a more far-reaching police reform agenda than the city has ever seen. On Monday, 14 of Council’s 17 members signed a letter to Mayor Jim Kenney that calls for significant steps, like independent police oversight and changes to the arbitration process. Kenney on Tuesday was set to announce his own reform plan.

Council members said they are open to cutting police funding or forgoing a proposed $19 million budget increase for the department. Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson, who wrote the letter, said that while he does not believe the department should be eliminated, he would support shifting funding to services that could prevent violence, like parks and youth recreation programs.

Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson indicated she would be open to an approach similar to that of the Camden department, which has drawn praise for its collaboration with schools and other city agencies.

“Camden has been very successful in reducing violence, especially murder, violent crime, nonfatal shootings, assaults, and property crimes,” she said in a statement. “Their focus on social services, employment, and education has been an important part of that work.”

But Camden’s transition has not been seamless, and it was sparked by economics and politics, not questions over policing.

In 2011, state budget woes led to almost half the department’s approximately 400 officers being laid off under then-Gov. Chris Christie. A period of devastating crime followed, with the city of fewer than 80,000 people logging a record 67 homicides in 2012.

County leaders and George E. Norcross III, the millionaire South Jersey businessman and political power broker, pushed for the creation of a new department that included a less-burdensome union contract they said would allow more officers to be hired. Even some residents who supported reforming the police were against the plan, afraid of losing officers they knew. Police unions also opposed it.

Then-New Jersey Gov. Christie and then-Camden Mayor Dana Redd.
CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Then-New Jersey Gov. Christie and then-Camden Mayor Dana Redd.

“There was uncertainty as to how it would work," said Dana Redd, who was mayor at the time. “It was a tumultuous time.”

As the city department was dissolved, officers had to reapply for jobs on the county force alongside new recruits. Some veterans said they were offered lower salaries and fewer benefits, but other officers were promoted and got raises.

County officials proposed that other municipalities would join forces with the department to make it a regional police force, but those towns have declined. The officers of the Camden County Police patrol only the city of Camden.

The budget for the new police force, which like the old one depends heavily on state aid, ended up millions higher that first year than what the city had planned to spend, and it has continued to grow. Camden budgeted $68.45 million last year for police. Paterson, a North Jersey city with almost double Camden’s population, estimated its annual police costs at $44.72 million.

Redd said county and city leaders built their plan based on national models, but customized it for Camden. When the new department’s officers were sworn in, all were directed to focus on meeting residents, knocking on doors, and walking beats. For years, officers have held block parties, basketball games, and cookouts in neighborhoods around the city.

“We were ridiculed by a lot of police departments who said we were soft,” Thomson said. “But if we see that this is something that can be meaningful to even a few people, why wouldn’t we do it?”

Not the perfect example

Camden has still struggled over the years to retain officers, which was a challenge even before the new department was created. This week, there are 380 officers on staff, county spokesperson Dan Keashen said.

Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said the department must pay officers better to stabilize the turnover.

“There’s no doubt there’s been a positive change in Camden," he said. "But it certainly hasn’t been the perfect example of how to do it.”

Scott Thomson, who was the Camden County Police Chief until 2019.
STEPHANIE AARONSON / Philly.com
Scott Thomson, who was the Camden County Police Chief until 2019.

Thomson said the bureaucracy of state civil-service restrictions limited the department’s hiring capabilities. In recent years, the department has made progress in diversifying its ranks, he said, thanks in part to a pilot program that enabled the hiring of close to 100 part-time officers of color.

But Thomson said he now believes he should have done more from the start to encourage hiring city residents, and to make the county force more diverse.

“You lose legitimacy if people can’t see these opportunities for themselves,” the former chief said.

Community advocates have said officers are overzealous in targeting residents over minor infractions, and have pressured the department to create an oversight board to review cases involving alleged police violence.

In the years after the new department was launched, it drew dozens of excessive-force complaints, including from a 21-year-old man who said officers broke his neck in 2014 and left him a quadriplegic. A lawsuit in that case is pending.

But in recent years, those complaints have dwindled, Keashen said. The department has also revamped its use-of-force policy, which Wysocki, a veteran Camden officer who replaced Thomson, has said reduces the chances of an incident like Floyd’s death happening in Camden. The policy, seen by some as more restrictive than those used by departments elsewhere in the state, instructs officers to use force only as a last resort and requires them to intervene if they witness other officers violating guidelines.

In this Saturday, May 30, 2020, photo, Lt. Zack James of the Camden County Metro Police Department marches along with demonstrators in Camden, N.J., to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Police officers in one of New Jersey's largest and most violent cities were praised on social media for marching alongside protesters in rallies held this weekend over Floyd's death. (April Saul via AP)
April Saul / AP
In this Saturday, May 30, 2020, photo, Lt. Zack James of the Camden County Metro Police Department marches along with demonstrators in Camden, N.J., to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Police officers in one of New Jersey's largest and most violent cities were praised on social media for marching alongside protesters in rallies held this weekend over Floyd's death. (April Saul via AP)

Capt. Zsakheim James, a 28-year law enforcement veteran who grew up in Camden and was a member of the former city police force, said few would deny that a cultural shift is taking place.

“Us meeting with the community in the absence of crisis really changed the game,” he said. “There are people who still don’t like the police, but there is a level of trust. There are people who believe in us, and believe in their ability to hold us accountable.”