To the three Camden police officers on patrol that May afternoon, the group of young people standing behind a vacant house with a .32-caliber revolver and a video camera looked suspicious.

Ta'Quan Allen, 19, and his three friends say the weapon - which Allen said had been passed down through his family for protection - was being used as a prop for a film he was recording. The friends were rehearsing a scene when the officers approached.

The encounter could have been dangerous, police said. But the officers, their guns drawn, questioned the group calmly, police said. Even Allen, who was arrested and accused of unlawful possession of a weapon and is contesting the charge, does not fault the officers.

"I definitely think they were just doing their job," Allen said. "I just wish they could have given me another chance, just to get to know me."

Allen's tale comes as Camden's police department is teaching its officers to talk first, and use force only as a last resort, in a city long ranked among the nation's most violent.

"At first they're iffy about it," Sgt. Brandon Kersey said of some officers, "just thinking that it may not work, especially in a city environment." But he keeps telling his unit at roll call: "Just give it a try."

"The days of running in, throwing people around, doing whatever, are over," Kersey said.

In recent months, the Camden County Police Department, which patrols only the city of Camden, has touted successes in using minimal force: The officers who arrested an alleged intoxicated man with a handgun. The officers who persuaded a man, barricaded in his home with two weapons, to surrender.

The department also says that of nearly 19,000 calls in the two years since it took over policing on May 1, 2013, officers have fired their guns just eight times. Most were at dogs that officers deemed a threat.

That is not to say Camden police resolve every situation easily.

Last year, the department drew 65 excessive-force complaints, the most in the state, with some suspects alleging that they were punched in the face or kicked.

Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said last week that two complaints from 2014 had been sustained, but that he could not detail the circumstances because they are personnel matters.

"We try to stay in front of having issues with excessive force by ensuring that we overclassify anything that's questionable," Thomson said.

His department is also developing a mentoring program about de-escalation and talking respectfully to suspects and residents. Kersey said he was one of 20 mentors who will teach such lessons to the ranks during upcoming three-day sessions.

"It's a culture that we've been building here, and we've been able to make good progress with the community," Thomson said. "But we also realize that it's fragile."

To prevent the relationship from unraveling, the department says it keeps an eye on its officers.

Every time officers use force - whether taking someone to the ground, or quarreling during a struggle - they must fill out a use-of-force report, which is then reviewed by a sergeant, a lieutenant, and the department's internal affairs unit.

An officer who files six use-of-force reports in six months must meet with a supervisor once a month to review de-escalation techniques and other strategies, police say.

"We don't claim that we're 100 percent perfect," said Lt. Zsakhiem James, a Camden resident who has patrolled the city for 22 years, most of that time as a member of the former city police department that was disbanded. But, he said, "We'd rather talk than fight. Not that we won't. But we'd rather talk."

Allen, the young man arrested filming in the vacant lot next to his home, acknowledges that he made a mistake bringing the gun to the recording - "It's dumb of me to even think that you can consider that was a prop" - though he disputes the police account that it was loaded.

Allen says he is not a troublemaker: He graduated last year from the city's Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, worked as a production assistant at MTV in New York this winter, and now has an internship with the Columbia School of Broadcasting in Virginia.

He worries what the weapons charge could mean for his future.

"I'm not a bad person, and we weren't doing anything bad," he said. "But I know [the officers] were just doing their job. I guess that's just how life is."

mboren@phillynews.com

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