Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey stood in front of the graduating class of police officers Friday at Camden County College, recalling how in December 1968, he was a recruit at the Chicago Police Academy - a little anxious, a little unsure what to expect.
What he has learned in 47 years of law enforcement since then, he said, is this: Treat people fairly. Show them respect. Don't misjudge them in times of crisis.
"You're going to catch them at their very worst," Ramsey said. "But don't be judgmental."
Ramsey's message carried through at the college's Blackwood campus, where 59 recruits graduated into 16 police agencies Friday, beginning careers that Ramsey and others acknowledged are more challenging than ever.
More than 200 people attended the ceremony, many of them family of the graduates. Many of the new graduates approached Ramsey after the ceremony, shook his hand, and posed for photos with him.
Twenty joined the Camden County Police Department, which patrols the city of Camden. Others went to Cherry Hill, the Delaware River Port Authority, Lindenwold, and other agencies.
The addition of recruits to the Camden County force boosts the number of officers to 354. The department has struggled to retain officers, with some citing extremely long hours as a reason for leaving. A total of 144 have resigned or retired since the force began hiring in January 2013.
Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said after the ceremony that the turnover is in part due to the state's Civil Service process, which can take nearly two years for a police applicant to complete, and does not require a police officer to stay at a department for a certain amount of time.
The process, Thomson said, "makes it extremely difficult for us to maintain the staffing levels we need and the ability to hire recruits to address our challenge of attrition and diversity."
The theme Friday, however, was about starting a law enforcement career, particularly when police-involved shootings in cities across the country - from Ferguson, Mo., to Philadelphia - have heightened scrutiny toward officers, and at times led to tension in the communities they serve.
Camden County Prosecutor Mary Eva Colalillo told the officers to not become complacent, and said the public will examine every move they make.
"It is a difficult time to be a police officer," she said, advising the officers to establish close ties with the community. "It is not us against them. We are all in this together."
Ramsey, who is retiring from Philadelphia's force next month after eight years as commissioner, emphasized that people don't just measure safety by fewer crimes. They want quality of life to improve, whether that comes from reducing gang activity or the number of vacant homes.
People also want police to respect them, he said.
"They're not just looking for the absence of crime in their neighborhoods," he said. "They're looking for the presence of justice.
"We've got to do everything we can," he added, "to reassure people they are being treated fairly."
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