As protesters nationwide continue pushing to revamp — or abolish — policing, onlookers have pointed to Camden as a potential model for change. Since the city disbanded its police force in 2013 in favor of a county-run force, violent crime besides homicides decreased — but the police budget shot up, and community members have expressed concerns at their lack of input in the process and outcomes.

A longtime Camden resident and former mayoral candidate debates a member of Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform: Should reformers look to Camden for ideas?


NO: Camden is spending more money on police, yet still not valuing black lives.

By Theo Spencer

Considering all the negative publicity Camden has endured in the recent past, it would be great for the city to be considered a model for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the national protests that have followed. As the narrative of Camden as a reform model has circulated national news, two of the most visible supporters in TV interviews are County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. and former Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson: two white nonresidents of a city that is overwhelmingly black and Latino.

The irony of Cappelli and Thomson as the spokespeople for Camden’s reform is one of many holes in a policing model rife with contradictions and inconsistencies. As a black man, I was riveted by the unrest that swept across the country. As a Camden resident, I know firsthand that the force here embodies none of the reforms people are yearning for in spirit or truth.

Unfortunately, people’s need to find a bright spot in the way minorities are policed has led to a vast oversimplification of Camden’s reorganization. Truthfully, our switch in 2013 was the result of a policy shift designed to get cities to share services. Camden’s overreliance on state resources provided the leverage and cover politicians needed to make broad changes to police services. Predictably, the results for crime have been mixed. While violent crime as a whole went down, homicides spiked in 2016 and increased again from 2018 to 2019.

A Camden County police officer wears a protective mask as she waits to direct people to a COVID-19 testing facility in view of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Camden, N.J., April 1.
Matt Rourke / AP
A Camden County police officer wears a protective mask as she waits to direct people to a COVID-19 testing facility in view of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Camden, N.J., April 1.

Recently, activists have started making appeals to defund the police to divert resources to social services. Conversely, the plan in Camden was to get more officers on the street. Coincidentally, at the time of transition, suburban departments were shedding officers due to cuts, so Camden was getting a lot of white officers to police a predominantly black and Latino city.

More officers, coupled with an aggressive policing strategy that would facilitate as many as six officers on the scene at minor traffic stops in our streets, lead to the kinds of scenarios that activists are protesting against.

Academics have cited civilian review as crucial in reducing police brutality. Many agree the reporting structure where officers report to a police chief who reports to a mayor is too weak. In Camden, the force reports diffusely to the mayor and City Council — yet not to civilians.

No one with a basic understanding of the demands of activists right now would seriously look at Camden.

Theo Spencer

In fact, when concerned residents tried to organize a vote to block the changes to the department, the mayor and other local officials sued to prevent the vote.

As it turns out, weaker civilian oversight has meant, for example, that the public has never gotten insight on the death of Nerreada Robles, a 17-year-old high school senior killed by a speeding police car last year. Following her death, City Council inexplicably considered a measure that would reduce the amount of time residents could maintain makeshift memorials like one created for Robles.

Since the reorganization of the police in 2013, Camden has been more lucky than good. Any one of the aforementioned circumstances in other places would have caused a riot elsewhere. Frankly, no one with a basic understanding of the demands of activists right now would seriously look at Camden. If America has finally become serious about the notion that black lives matter, it can’t start with a policing model where regard for black lives was an afterthought.

Theo Spencer is a longtime Camden resident and currently works as a vice president of software development for a large U.S. bank. Spencer is also a former school board member and was a candidate for mayor in 2013 and 2017.​

In this Saturday, May 30, 2020, photo, Camden County Metro Police Chief Joe Wysocki raises a fist while marching with Camden residents and activists in Camden, N.J., to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
April Saul / AP
In this Saturday, May 30, 2020, photo, Camden County Metro Police Chief Joe Wysocki raises a fist while marching with Camden residents and activists in Camden, N.J., to protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

YES: Camden is showing the value of community policing.

By Zane Kaleem

In the wake of angry nationwide demonstrations, Philadelphia’s response to peaceful protests exemplifies everything wrong with urban policing in 2020.

Not only did we experience some chaos this month, but after days of public frustration over police brutality, Philadelphia police were caught abusing their power on camera. Officers were spotted pulling goggles off of seated protesters’ faces and spraying tear gas into their eyes, despite protesters’ obvious efforts to be civil in displaying their outrage over the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many other black Americans by officers nationwide. Adding insult to injury in Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney did not express regret at the teargassing assault of peaceful protesters by his city’s police force.

While unrest unfolded in Philadelphia, across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, police in Camden took a different approach to the trauma and emotion being expressed. Instead of fighting back, Camden police came together with protesters to march in solidarity with black American communities.

How did this happen in one of the country’s most dangerous cities in 2012? A big part of it was community policing.

Police are trained to shift their identity away from solving issues with their authority and guns and instead strive for a partnership with local residents.

Zane Kaleem

Community policing is a public health approach to public safety that tasks police and community members with collaborating to improve safety and quality of life in their neighborhoods. Camden officials revamped the city’s police force in 2013, with the goal of shifting the culture of policing from one of dominance in the community to greater trust and stronger relationships with locals. Police are trained to shift their identity away from solving issues with their authority and guns and instead strive for a partnership with local residents.

Community policing relies on key foundational principles that any city can adopt as a start toward change. These principles lie in procedural justice, which former Sheriff Sue Rahr in King County, Wash., simplified into what was coined the LEED framework: Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity. Under such a framework, officers are trained to listen first, be transparent by explaining why they approach a person or pull them over, and explain the legal process to people who encounter law enforcement, such as when stopped on the highway by an officer. LEED helps police become trusted and have honest discourse with community members.

Nationally, organizations like Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform, of which I am a task force assistant director, have highlighted the negative health effects of police brutality and its role in systematizing racism, especially its contribution to poor health outcomes in black communities. The American Medical Association shared that more encounters with police in minority communities are linked not just to elevated stress and anxiety among residents, but also to increased prevalence of high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma. Research also suggests that racial discrimination leads to adverse mental health outcomes.

Yet, as the American Psychological Association reports, the evidence suggests that when police “treat people with dignity, respect, fairness and neutrality, people are more likely to comply with their directives and accept any outcome, [whether] favorable or unfavorable.” What the APA describes matches the public health approach that Camden adopted via community policing.

Switching to a community policing model for Philadelphia is a step in the right direction to end police violence. Advocates have yelled their battle cry for change. For the sake of the health and safety of every black Philadelphian, it is our leaders’ turn to deliver.

Zane Kaleem is a medical student at Drexel University College of Medicine and assistant director of the Correctional Health Care Task Force at Physicians for Criminal Justice Reform. @ZaneKaleem


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