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In Camden, police pursuing little crimes eases bigger problems

From Pacilily's Restaurant in Camden, owner James Edwards often sees police warning loiterers on Mount Ephraim Avenue to move along or face arrest.

Sgt. John Morris (left) and Oficer Julio Malave of the Camden police talk with men on the corner of Broadway and Viola.
Sgt. John Morris (left) and Oficer Julio Malave of the Camden police talk with men on the corner of Broadway and Viola.Read more

From Pacilily's Restaurant in Camden, owner James Edwards often sees police warning loiterers on Mount Ephraim Avenue to move along or face arrest.

Many who gather there are harmless neighborhood residents, or drug addicts begging for spare change, Edwards said. But he appreciates having fewer people hanging around on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant.

"The police are doing a good job," Edwards said. "They drive up, everybody leaves."

In Camden, a drug- and crime-ridden city awash in street violence, police officers are spending more time these days making arrests for minor offenses such as public drinking, playing loud music, and violating curfew. When they arrive at a crowded corner, officers sometimes arrest as many people as they can - even if half of the charges are for so-called quality-of-life offenses.

The strategy is part of a general crackdown on crime that began about five months ago, when Police Chief Scott Thomson assumed control of a department scrambling to suppress Camden's rising homicide rate and gang presence.

Some residents and business owners support the enforcement of quality-of-life laws, saying they feel safer in their neighborhoods.

But others say the arrests won't solve the city's underlying problems, and they have criticized the police for diverting much-needed manpower to minor problems when the city is facing a crisis of violence.

As of Friday, the city of about 75,000 had 48 homicides in 2008, compared with 42 in all of 2007. Despite appearances, the rate of homicides has slowed since mid-year. The first half of 2008 was so bloody that some worried Camden could break its record of 58 homicides in 1995.

A reorganization of the police department in August tripled the number of officers on patrol. In some neighborhoods, dozens of cruisers descend at once to deter violence and open-air drug dealing.

With the rate of violent crimes on the decline, Thomson believes arrests for quality-of-life offenses will allow police to chip away at the city's drug trade.

"We can't just keep saying, 'If we lock up the drug dealers, we'll solve the drug problems,' " Thomson said in a recent interview. And "if you run around trying to prevent homicides, you're going to be chasing your tail."

Officers are making 41 percent more arrests for quality-of-life arrests than they used to, according to Thomson. In a typical week, about half of the arrests made are now for quality-of-life offenses.

Of 404 people arrested between Nov. 17 and 24, half were charged with quality-of-life offenses. An additional 25 percent were fugitives with outstanding warrants. The remaining 25 percent were charged with criminal offenses. (Those who fall into more than one category are counted only for the more serious offense.)

Thomson's approach - a version of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani's "broken windows" strategy to improve New York by cracking down on vandalism and other quality-of-life crimes in the early 1990s - stems from the belief that most of Camden's crime is related, however distantly, to the city's underground drug economy.

"A person that feels emboldened to pull out a handgun may be the same person who's driving around playing loud music, or who's standing on the corner drinking," Thomson said. "If you enforce the small things, the big things will follow."

Angel Cordero, an East Camden resident who runs a program aimed at helping high school dropouts go to college, believes enforcing the small things will make conditions worse.

Those arrested receive summonses for court dates, which can result in fines that many can't afford to pay, Cordero said. People who miss court dates could end up with arrest warrants, he said, which might make it harder for them to find jobs.

"What they're doing right now is hurting people, hurting families, hurting communities," he said.

Cordero, who said he sometimes sees dozens of officers on one block, also suspects the police are trying to boost their arrest numbers by sweeping up people for minor offenses.

"Why are we not finding out about the almost 50 murders we've had?" he asked. "How come they're not going after the big people who sell drugs in Camden? We all know who they are. Let's use our resources to stop them."

Kelly Francis, a Camden resident and president of the county NAACP chapter, said unemployment and drug use lead to many of the quality-of-life violations. The homeless or unemployed often don't have anywhere to go during the day, he said, so chasing them away from street corners is futile.

"These people are not going to change no matter how many times you arrest them," he said. "It looks good, but what do you accomplish?"

Gail Caputo, an associate professor of criminology at Rutgers-Camden University, also questions the campaign's long-term benefits, particularly in terms of the drug addicts who loiter on known drug corners.

"Some people can't be deterred," she said. "The threat of another violation is nothing to someone who's trying to get their next fix."

Caputo, who lives in the city's Fairview section, has noticed a greater police presence there. But she said the dealers just move a block when they see a cruiser. Many don't care that the police are there, she said.

The strategy is largely symbolic, Caputo believes, intended to boost the morale of residents.

"I think that in a place like Camden that is so troubled, people are afraid," she said. When neighbors "hear about social control like this, they can get behind it."

Police Director Louis Vega, who joined the department at the same time Thomson was promoted, acknowledged the department won't prevent every murder and street fight by arresting people for loitering. But by putting more officers on the streets and urging them to enforce whatever laws they can, the department has seized more guns this year - 292, as opposed to 276 last year - and violent crimes have decreased.

Vega also disputed the idea that people are arrested solely for standing around. Loitering is often the only charge an officer can bring against a person who appears to be waiting to buy or sell drugs, he said, and it's usually not a coincidence when someone is hanging around at a drug hot spot.

"If you're spending time in places where drugs are bought and sold, you're not innocent of doing anything wrong," Vega said. "You're there, knowingly, with this group of people that's creating issues for the rest of the community. That's how the problems start."