Community activists and relatives of alleged police-brutality victims protested yesterday outside the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, demanding that state troopers soften their approach on Camden's streets.
The state police, who have had a presence in Camden since the 1990s, have periodically been criticized for using more force than city officers. Some have said that they do not understand the neighborhoods well enough to distinguish between law-abiding residents and criminals.
Those concerns came up again in April after a Pemberton Township man died in Camden shortly after being handcuffed and arrested on drug charges by state troopers.
The man, 32-year-old Jorge Rivera, stuffed a bag of suspected narcotics into his mouth and choked, police said. An autopsy confirmed that he died from choking on the bag, according to the Attorney General's Office.
Family members, however, contend that officers beat and stomped Rivera to death.
"We are always concerned when residents raise issues regarding police conduct," said Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, which oversees the state police in Camden.
"Camden is one of the most violent cities in the country," Aseltine said. "The greatest concern for Camden residents remains the number of innocent people victimized by gang- and drug-related violence. That is why the state police are needed."
State police in Camden do targeted drug enforcement and other investigations, not routine street patrols. They have made about 300 arrests in Camden this year - 11 involving use of force, Aseltine said.
About 25 protestors, led by Angel Cordero, an activist and mayoral candidate, held signs bearing slogans such as "Troopers Shape Up or Ship Out."
One protester, Annette Russell, said her son, Timothy Harvey, was beaten, stomped, and kicked by state troopers last weekend while being arrested on a suspected Camden drug corner. Before going to jail, he was taken to the hospital to get stitches in his face, she said.
"He's no stranger to the system, and we're not in denial about that, but no child deserves to be beaten like that," Russell said.