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Law agencies pool resources under one roof to fight crime in Camden

The dealer and his lookout were peddling crack on a Camden side street. It was midnight in Whitman Park, a desperate neighborhood in a desperate city. An undercover officer made a buy.

The dealer and his lookout were peddling crack on a Camden side street. It was midnight in Whitman Park, a desperate neighborhood in a desperate city. An undercover officer made a buy.

Camden Police Lt. Greg Carlin's radio crackled: "Move in, move in."

When the unmarked cars raced up, the dealer, a big guy in black, froze in the headlights. His lookout took off.

Carlin hit the gas down a one-way. Other officers ran after the lookout, darting across an intersection.

Carlin and another officer bore down on the fleeing suspect, tackling him before he made it into a patchwork of yards.

"Yo, let me get my hat," the 26-year-old said as he was lifted to his feet, cuffed.

Within seconds of the arrest, the street was flooded with officers from the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, and the New Jersey State Police.

The ongoing weekend raids, known as Operation Eagle Eye, were staged from a new crime-fighting command base at L3 Communications, a highly secure defense firm near the Camden waterfront.

In the spring, Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson used $250,000 in drug forfeiture money to lease 15,000 square feet in the building, with the hope of strengthening coordination among the many law enforcement agencies policing this deadly city.

With the money, which can only be used on spending outside of regular budget costs, Thomson wanted to create a unified "base camp," he said.

"The biggest fallacy out there is that law enforcement communicates well with each other," Thomson said in a recent interview, the first time he had publicly discussed the initiative. "We all say we do, but we can't unless you have a structure like this in place."

Since the summer, a dozen federal, state, county, and city agencies have reassigned about a hundred frontline violent-crime investigators, drug task forces, senior assistant prosecutors, and other resources to L3, transforming the recently empty office space into the city's nerve center in the fight against crime.

"These agencies have agreed to have representatives here under one roof for the sole purpose of assisting Camden reduce violent crime," said Raymond Massi, of the U.S. Attorney's Office, who is coordinating the efforts at L3.

The collaborative efforts were in place before the city announced last month that the 373-person Police Department would be axed nearly in half due to budget deficit layoffs. Due to county cuts, the Prosecutor's Office may also lose staff members.

While the "leveraging" of resources at L3 cannot compensate for the cuts, Thomson said, it can keep the department he has left in a "forward-leaning position on violent crime."

"I have to protect my most valuable assets that enable me to shape policies," said Thomson, who became police chief in 2008. "I cannot allow this organization, whether I have a thousand or 10 cops, to be resigned to becoming clerks in squad cars."

"This is my Alamo," he said of the joint efforts at L3.

Importantly, it's a way to bring coordination to a city where so many law enforcement agencies work an area not much larger than a single Philadelphia police district.

Overlapping investigations and competing priorities can often lead to institutional friction and turf battles, said Jerry Ratcliffe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University who has studied Camden. Different agencies hold different pieces of the information puzzle, he said, preventing an accurate understanding of "crime relationships and patterns."

"No one agency sees the complete picture," he said. "It's a fundamental problem in policing."

Thomson agreed.

"A Texas hold 'em mentality develops where everyone keeps their cards close to their vests," he said.

The L3 initiative is similar to larger law enforcement "fusion centers" and antiterrorism command centers developed since 9/11, Ratcliffe said.

"It's a necessary step for Camden," he said, "but there's challenges. It's hard to get everyone to play together."

Aware that L3 space was available, Thomson began lobbying law enforcement heads to relocate resources to the high-security building in 2009, said Jerry Daley, executive director of the Philadelphia and Camden High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task forces.

"There was an immediate and unanimous buy-in," Daley said. "It's the simple act of getting everyone together at the same table."

At the crux of the L3 operation are daily morning briefings, known as "the huddle," Carlin said.

About 15 frontline commanders gather for the intelligence-sharing sessions, to hash over homicides and major arrests, update investigations, and coordinate daily operations.

"We're laying out our playbooks and executing," Carlin said.

Targets for Eagle Eye and other street ops are identified in the daily huddles, he said.

Since October, the coordinated sweeps have netted about 100 arrests and 39 gun seizures, modest numbers in a city overrun with drugs and weapons.

There are about 150 "drug sets" in the nine-square-mile city, which averages close to 2,000 drug arrests each year, Carlin said. Small solace was taken in knowing corners would be disrupted for a few hours before returning to business.

More important, Carlin said, is the street intel gathered from these raids, which is now disseminated better through the agencies. The command post at L3 has a unified intelligence room, its walls decorated with photos of the drug dealers from the television show The Wire.

Front-line investigators say they are noticing a difference.

"The real-time information that's getting shared is unprecedented," said Lt. Frank Falco, head of the Prosecutor's Office homicide unit.

The recent night's work provided snapshots into the challenges of policing this devastated city.

In the crowded briefing room at L3, the undercover officers announced their blood types in case things went seriously wrong.

There were the fat man and his thin friend slinging heroin on Bailey Street. Neighbors walked by casually as swarming police searched shrubs, car rims, and weed-choked lots for stashes. And dealers were at their regular spots in Ablett Village, the scene of a recent homicide.

"This ain't no big deal," one of the young dealers said from the police van.

At Viola Street, several suspected dealers were laughing as they were cuffed. Someone riddled the front porch of a home in Whitman Park with bullets. There were 20 people inside the house for a party, including a woman and her infant. Luckily, no one was hit.

Outside the Golden Pearl Chinese Restaurant along Route 30, a dealer was so blatantly advertising his drugs "he could have been selling egg rolls," said an officer. The dealer was using two middle school students as runners. They were brothers. One was 13, the other was 12.

"We're twins," the older one said.

The police took them home to their mother.

It was almost comforting to see the Jackson Street lookout take off when police sped up. At least he cared enough to run.

L3's success or failure will be determined if the arrangement is still holding together "in a year or two," Ratcliffe said, "if it can be shown that it helped drive down violent crime."

Thomson agreed with the assessment.

"If that doesn't happen, then this is all just an exercise of everyone getting the same mailing address," he said.

It's too early to tell from the statistics.

Shootings in the city have dipped since a dramatic rise this summer, Police Department records show, but they are still up about 20 percent from last year. There have been 36 homicides this year, as of Monday, up from 34 in all of 2009.

The County Prosecutor's Office has assigned its homicide unit and some senior prosecutors to L3, hoping to increase major-case closure rates, said Prosecutor Warren Faulk.

Homicide closure rates hover around 45 percent in Camden, about 20 percent lower than the national average. The rates have dropped since a "backlog was created" in 2008 when the city had 54 homicides, Faulk said.

In 2009, only 35 percent of Camden's nonfatal shootings were solved, meaning arrests were made or charges issued, Prosecutor's Office records show.

The streamlined coordination at L3 allows prosecutors to "get involved in cases earlier," Faulk said, with the aim of ending them "not just with arrests but convictions."

For now, the pending layoffs loom large. Thomson said he is in the midst of "massive realignment" of his force.

His manpower at L3 will not be cut, he said.

"This is an effort to get out in front of crime, to prevent it before it happens," he said. "If I don't have that, I have nothing. I folded."