The Camden police read to children, enjoy the trust of the community, and match "courage with compassion," President Obama said Monday.

"More like the Peace Corps," Chief Scott Thomson said.

Or, the department is overly aggressive and risking escalating tensions, the American Civil Liberties Union says.

Two years after it was formed, drawing controversy as it replaced Camden's old police department, the county-run force still arouses strong feelings on either side.

Crime statistics - sharp drops in homicides, robberies, and other major offenses - allow the department and its boosters to claim that its community-policing strategies are making the city safer.

Critics such as the ACLU say the record has blemishes - officers using excessive force and making unjustified stops.

Last year, police in Camden drew the most excessive-force complaints in New Jersey. Tickets issued for petty offenses, such as loitering and driving with broken taillights, have also risen to the highest level in years, jarring some residents, who question the need for such stops.

Brenda Chevere, 28, a Camden resident who waited to see Obama on Monday, said she was upset when she was stopped in April by police for not wearing a seat belt.

Some, such as Patrick Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, question the validity of the new department's claims of success in tamping down violent crime.

Colligan, in an open letter to Obama on Monday, said violent crime in Camden had spiked in 2012 - the year Camden officials often compare current crime levels to - because of police layoffs that stemmed from spending cuts by Gov. Christie.

The next year, the city department was replaced by the county-run Metro Division.

"Mr. President, you have been misled by public relations spin and misreporting of crime statistics to believe that the Camden County Metro Police is a success," Colligan wrote.

He said the department was created to bust the police union, a concern that many officers on the former Camden city force have expressed.

Officials in Camden say the new department was formed to eliminate rank-and-file contracts that were too expensive.

Philadelphia - whose police commissioner, Charles H. Ramsey, chaired a presidential task force that Obama cited recommendations from Monday - has also not been without its share of criticism over community relations.

There, stop-and-frisk policies have become a talking point in the mayoral race, with candidate Anthony Hardy Williams saying he would replace Ramsey over his support of the policy.

Both Ramsey and Thomson say officers must show respect - and have legitimate suspicion - when stopping someone. Many complaints Ramsey gets about stops, he said, are about how civilians were treated during them.

Thomson said he tells his officers to initially give warnings instead of tickets. But, he said, "there's only so many times warnings will be issued."

Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU in New Jersey, slammed Thomson's department Monday for writing a high number of tickets for petty offenses.

"Aggressively enforcing low-level offenses will only serve to escalate tensions and make communities less safe," Ofer said.

"I've had conversations with the ACLU," Thomson said, but he would not disclose what was discussed.

He described his department differently than the ACLU does.

"We operate more like the Peace Corps than we do a police organization in some regards," Thomson said.

In addressing community relations Monday, he said the department continues to need to build trust in neighborhoods.

"You cannot build trust without human contact," he said. "And we cannot expect people to just arbitrarily give us the benefit of the doubt if they don't know us."

mboren@phillynews.com

856-779-3829 @borenmc