Camden, ranked for long among the most violence-plagued cities in the country, is now a "national model" of policing, the city's mayor said Thursday as President Obama announced that he will visit next week to see for himself.
The work of a county-run police force that took over patrolling in Camden two years ago has been hailed from City Hall to the governor's mansion.
Gov. Christie and local officials have highlighted drops in various crime categories, including homicides, since the advent of the new force, attributing the progress to having more officers on the beat, new crime-fighting technologies, and greater community outreach.
Obama will visit the city Monday "to hear directly about the efforts of the Camden County Police Department to build trust between their department and the community they serve," the White House said.
The president's visit follows the naming last month of Camden as a federal "Promise Zone." The designation will enable the city to receive help in securing federal funding for revitalization efforts.
When the president arrives next week, he is expected to discuss the program in a speech at the Federal Street headquarters of the police department's Metro Division.
In February, Police Chief Scott Thomson testified at a hearing for the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing in America.
The task force, which included Philadelphia Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, was created after fatal police shootings sparked protests in Missouri and elsewhere.
In his testimony, Thomson stressed the importance of community policing to build trust in neighborhoods between residents and beat officers.
"This is a watershed moment for American policing. We must acknowledge the grievances of the public, take inventory of ourselves, be committed to redress, and invite the community to have a hand on the steering wheel as we seek a new destination," he told the task force.
Two years ago, in a move that opponents said was a ploy to bust the police union, the city police force was disbanded and replaced with the county force, which Gov. Christie called a "transformational moment."
Since then, local and state officials have chronicled a decrease in crime, with the 531 robbery victims last year being the fewest since at least 2000.
Homicides declined from a record 67 in 2012 to 33 last year.
Among residents, there is both praise for the new force and criticism.
Some note that they hear fewer gunshots and see fewer drug dealers.
"The problem has diminished," said Shelly Johnson, 52, as she enjoyed the nice afternoon weather Thursday on her porch in Lanning Square.
"The police are respectful," she said. "They sit back and watch, and these other people, they get ghost - they disappeared," Lanning, a retired state case worker said, referring to drug dealers and users.
In East Camden, Victoria Costello, 32, said she has noticed fewer people, especially young people, loitering in the streets. She lives in Pennsauken, and comes to Camden nearly every day for her job at Glamourocity Salon on Westfield Avenue.
She said she often sees police cruisers patrolling the area and contrasts that with the time, before the new department was created, when she went to report her purse stolen and found the previous department unresponsive. Eventually, she said, she tracked down the thief by calling her cellphone.
Sucely Fuentes, 30, took three of her children for ice cream Thursday afternoon. She said drug dealers used to crowd the corner near her home on South 26th Street. She watched Metro officers arrest the dealers. Now, she said, her block is calm.
Colandus "Kelly" Francis, president of the Camden County chapter of the NAACP and longtime city resident, however, sees the new department as the wrong kind of model.
He points to a spike in excessive-force complaints, and says the new force is not as diverse as its predecessor, being predominantly white in a city of minorities.
"How can we say we have one of the best police forces? We've gone backward, back to 1960 in time," he said.
George E. Norcross III, chairman of Cooper University Healthcare, Camden's largest employer and a political insider who had advocated for the change, said he "couldn't be more pleased [Camden leaders] are being recognized nationally."
Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. credited officers with "working hand and hand with the community" for creating stronger neighborhoods.
Still, violent crime has declined in cities across New Jersey, and even with its declines, Camden remains the most crime-plagued city in the state, as it has been since 2007.
The number of homicides last year was close to what was the norm when Camden was at or near the top of the list of the most violent cities in the nation.
Police in Camden also have drawn more excessive-force complaints than departments in even larger cities, a result, some say, of a new focus on "quality of life" violations.
Thomson has said officers are trained to use "the minimal amount of force necessary."
In a statement Thursday noting the Obama visit, the Governor's Office issued a statement that said: "Combating a decades-long public safety crisis, Gov. Christie took aggressive action to bring about a sweeping reformation of police services in the City of Camden."
Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said she was delighted that the president's visit would highlight the public-safety gains.
"Since the onset of our transition to the Camden County Police Department, I was confident that our new policing paradigm would become a national model, because we engaged and kept our residents involved throughout the process," Redd said in a statement.
Among those expected to greet the president is Rep. Donald Norcross (D., Camden).
On Thursday, Norcross said the new force and community policing was "making the city safer and leading to exciting new investments that will boost our economy," and added that he wanted to personally thank the president for "sharing in our vision for Camden and South Jersey."
Obama's visit will be his third to Camden. He came first in 2006, when he was a U.S. senator from Illinois, to campaign for his New Jersey colleague, Robert Menendez. He came again in 2009, as president this time, to stump for Gov. Jon S. Corzine.