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Experiences that shaped new sheriff

As a rookie Camden police officer in 1969, Gilbert "Whip" Wilson responded to the slaying of two officers, rushing one of the mortally wounded men to the hospital in the backseat of a cruiser.

Gilbert "Whip" Wilson will take over the Camden County Sheriff's Office in January.
Gilbert "Whip" Wilson will take over the Camden County Sheriff's Office in January.Read more(AVI STEINHARDT / For The Inquirer)

As a rookie Camden police officer in 1969, Gilbert "Whip" Wilson responded to the slaying of two officers, rushing one of the mortally wounded men to the hospital in the backseat of a cruiser.

Years later, in North Camden, Wilson opened fire on a man who shot at him with a rifle in a second-floor bedroom, sending a bullet into the man's abdomen.

"He missed," Wilson said. "But I didn't."

The experiences showed Wilson the fragility of life, both angering and sickening him. But his outlook on policing stayed the same: Not everyone is a criminal, he said, just the select few causing problems.

Wilson, now 68, will bring that philosophy to the Camden County Sheriff's Office when he takes over in January and replaces Charles Billingham, who has overseen the office for seven years.

Wilson, an assemblyman (D., Camden) since 2010, will manage a $14 million budget; more than 200 employees; and the units responsible for protecting the county's Superior Court and for serving arrest warrants, for everything from late child-support payments to selling drugs.

"The biggest challenge coming to this job is learning the personnel, and also the responsibilities," he said in a recent interview.

Wilson, who was elected this month to the sheriff's position and starts Jan. 1, said he wants to expand the office's visibility in the community, playing off his previous outreach work as a Camden police officer.

Wilson will make $144,000 as sheriff, $95,000 more than his salary as an assemblyman. He also has a $50,383 pension from his 26 years at the Camden City Police Department. He retired in 1995 and is not eligible to enroll in any other state-administered pension plan, state officials said.

A husband and father of six children, Wilson grew up in Camden and lives in the city's Lanning Square neighborhood. He is the oldest among his three brothers and one sister, which means "I'm used to being in charge," he said.

Wilson was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and served in Vietnam before becoming a Camden police officer in 1969. He was on the job just two months, he said, when he had to race Officer Charles Sutman to the hospital. Sutman had been fatally shot responding to a domestic disturbance.

"That was a very traumatic experience," Wilson said.

In 1982, Wilson found himself in danger when he and another officer came to a home where a man was lying on a bed with a rifle. The man's girlfriend had told police he was shooting at her. Wilson said he cracked open the bedroom door with a broomstick, and he and the suspect exchanged fire.

As a rookie, Wilson said he also shot a burglary suspect in the leg when the suspect tried to pull out a knife during a foot pursuit.

The suspects in both shootings survived, Wilson said, but pulling the trigger made his stomach churn.

"It made me sick," he said. "Because I was a good guy, a good cop."

In the early '90s, after youths set more than 130 fires across the city on "Mischief Night," the night before Halloween, Wilson said he oversaw a community policing unit that boarded up homes and walked the streets with residents, flashlights in hand, to prevent a repeat the following year.

Two years later, in 1994, Wilson visited the North Camden home of a 22-year-old job applicant to the police force: Scott Thomson.

The two had a lengthy discussion about community policing before Wilson hired Thomson, who is now the police chief in Camden.

"As a street cop, Whip was famous for quickly de-escalating volatile situations," Thomson said. "As a young cop, I enjoyed watching him in action, and better learned how to calm people in times of crisis."

As sheriff, Wilson said he wants officers to interact with the public more. He said he may form sports teams to compete with community groups. Mike Olson, president of PBA Local 277, which represents the officers, said there are existing softball and street hockey teams. Wilson also wants to have a crime-prevention officer teach safety at schools and churches.

But mostly, the transition from one sheriff to another will pass without much spectacle.

Wilson said he isn't planning large-scale changes, and that his predecessor, Billingham, has done an excellent job. Billingham, who plans to do law enforcement consulting, said he is just trying to show Wilson the ropes.

"Leaving is very busy for me," he said. "I want to make sure that my successor has no reason to bash me about how I left the place."

Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. credited Billingham with making the sheriff's office more efficient by replacing officers with civilians in certain units.

Billingham said he moved officers from the criminal identification bureau, which is mostly desk work, to the special investigations unit, which handles 8,000 active warrants at any given time and has the never-ending job of arresting those suspects.

Part of the sheriff's role, particularly in serving the warrants, is to have a close relationship with the Camden County Police Department, Billingham said.

Wilson, a former member of Camden City Council, has criticized policing in the city in the past. In 2009, after accompanying officers on a juvenile sweep, Wilson called the attempts to frisk and demand identification from people who seemingly did nothing wrong "short of Gestapo tactics."

In an interview last week, Wilson said, "it was just a group of guys, so I had concerns about that."

He said he expects to have a good relationship with the police department and Thomson. Thomson said, "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Whip both personally and professionally,and look forward to working together again."

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