Just a few years ago Camden was caught in a cycle of perpetual violence. So New Jersey’s seventh-largest city (current population: 77,332) took a radical step: in 2011 it fired 163 officers, approximately half of its police force. The next year proved especially deadly, with one person shot every 32 hours. But Mayor Dana Redd had a plan. She disbanded the rest of the department to make way for a new countywide force and hired John Timoney, a former Miami police chief, and police consultant Joe Cordero and asked them to design strategies that could develop stronger inroads with the local community
On May 1, 2013, Scott Thomson, who was previously running the city’s squad, was sworn in as chief of the all-new Camden County Police Department. “I knew we had only one opportunity in getting it right to establish the type of culture we needed to make Camden a safer, more vibrant, prosperous place,” he says. From the start, Thomson implemented more community policing and new education workshops. Camden will be the only force in the country to have all 372 of its officers trained as “ethical protectors,” a version of a program used to teach marines about the responsible use of force and community building.
Former marine Jack E. Hoban, who developed the law-enforcement program, is teaching the first class of Camden officers, who will then mentor the rest of the force. “Police may have to take a life in order to save a life,” he notes, “and so there needs to be an extra level of skills and training.” Police officers need to have strong ethics and verbal conflict-resolution skills and to learn how to balance policing and home life to manage stress levels.
Researcher Steven Olson and his team at Georgia State University plan to evaluate the impact of the program once more officers have been trained. But reducing stress should help officers better control impulsivity and implicit bias—both of which can contribute to violence. In a 2011 study, researcher Michael L. Arter of Pennsylvania State University studied 32 officers from two Southern metropolitan police forces and found a correlation between higher levels of stress and reported acts of deviance— including heavy drinking, promiscuity and dishonesty—both on the job and off. When the stress was off, mostly from reassigning positions, these officers stopped acting out.
The program also jibes with one of the newest ideas promoted in policing circles, called procedural justice: when residents are treated fairly, they view the police more positively, and their interactions with them become safer. But procedural justice can be hard to implement. In a 2014 study, political scientist Wesley Skogan and his colleagues at Northwestern University evaluated the one-day training of 8,700 police officers, 230 new recruits and some civilian officers in Chicago. They found that many officers responded well to the instruction in the short term but became less supportive of some principles over time. The researchers conducted a survey of randomly selected officers to assess the long-term impact of training. Whereas some of the ideas of procedural justice endured, many officers still did not trust the public, which is imperative to create goodwill in a community. In Camden, “it will be reinforced on an ongoing basis so as to become the culture of our police department,“ says Lieutenant Kevin Lutz, chief instructor for the Camden County College Police Academy.
Also as part of that cultural shift, officers are walking beats more and attending weekend barbecues and potluck dinners. “The only way to truly build trust with another human being is through contact,” Thomson says. “The walking beat creates the opportunity for officers to have interactions with the people that are separate and apart from a moment of crisis or interaction predicated on enforcement.”
Like procedural justice, community policing gets mixed re - views. In a 2014 paper, Charlotte Gill of George Mason University and her colleagues analyzed 65 studies of community policing and concluded that, overall, such programs have positive effects on community satisfaction but do not deter crime. But “when the police build positive relationships with the community, they can impact proximal outcomes like citizen satisfaction and trust, which may set the scene for effective problem solving to occur,” they wrote. This held true for Thomson and his staff. They engaged their network of community leaders to good effect this past July 4, when an officer shot and killed an unarmed Hispanic man. After frank discussion, police leaders released 911 tapes and put the officers involved on administrative leave; community leaders called for calm, and the public listened.
Whether Thomson’s tactics will change crime rates in Camden over the long term remains to be seen, but so far the statistics are encouraging. Since he took charge, the force has fielded more than 4,500 calls about firearms, but officers have shot their guns only nine times, with one death. Moreover, the economy has improved, violent crime has dropped 30 percent and murders involving guns are down 50 percent. “We will never reach a finish line,” Thomson says. “It’s one that we will work toward every day, understanding that it’s a perpetually fragile environment that we hold near and dear.”