Josephine Skinner's grandson Dequan was 11 or 12 years old a few summers ago when she says he had a run-in with a Camden police officer who neighbors claim terrorized them for years.
As the youth crossed the street to buy a soda at a store, she said Officer Jason Stetser — known on the streets as "Fat Face" — sprang from his cruiser.
"He grabbed my grandson and said he had $100 of stuff on him," Skinner said. "They tried to lock him up."
For years, residents say some police officers have bullied them in this impoverished city, making cases by planting drugs on suspects, falsifying police reports, and conducting searches without warrants. Now four officers, including Stetser, are being investigated by a federal grand jury.
And prosecutors say they've had to drop charges or vacate convictions in 185 criminal cases because of possibly corrupt police work — meaning scores of criminals could end up returning to drug-infested streets.
Another of Skinner's grandchildren, 15-year-old Artice Skinner, said he witnessed the episode between Stetser and Dequan and saw Stetser hold out his hand, overflowing with crack cocaine that the police officer said came from Dequan's pocket.
Skinner said Dequan was released after an aunt explained that he wasn't the neighborhood child police were looking for.
"The cops were more of a problem than the crime was," said Josephine Skinner.
Their Waterfront South neighborhood has breathed a little easier since November, when Stetser and at least three other officers were taken off the streets as authorities began their investigation.
Stetser's lawyer, Richard Madden, did not return a call.
Among those suspended was 29-year-old patrolman Kevin Parry. On March 19, he admitted in court that he stole drugs from some suspects, planted them on others, bribed prostitutes with drugs for information, conducted searches without warrants, lied on police reports and in testimony, and roughed up suspects. He acknowledged 50-70 acts of police misconduct from May 2007 to October 2009.
Residents say it was not uncommon for some officers to greet locals by punching them, using force to intimidate. The threat of criminal charges was the main police currency.
In Waterfront South, lovingly tended row homes sit uneasily alongside crumbling empty ones and monstrous warehouses loom beyond back yards. The stench from a nearby sewage plant hangs in the air. Daffodils have begun to bloom in a trash-strewn vacant lot.
A church group has painted poetry on sheets of plywood nailed over windows of vacant buildings — like Pablo Neruda's lines, "I want to do with you what the spring does with cherry trees."
The same day Parry pleaded guilty last month, authorities spoke publicly about the investigation for the first time. Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk said several officers were being investigated by the federal grand jury. Only Parry has been criminally charged.
Faulk also revealed that 185 cases had been compromised because of possibly corrupt police work. It's not that all the suspects weren't guilty, he said, but that without using the reports of the officers, there was no more credible evidence.
Lawyers have now begun filing claims notifying the city of their intention to sue based on the actions of Parry and the other officers.
The investigation has cast doubt — at least in Josephine Skinner's neighborhood — over even more drug cases.
Bodega owner Manuel Torres says that he thinks his sons, Jonathan and Sterling, were set up by police for their drug arrests a few years ago. Neither has had his conviction vacated.
The scandal is the latest blow to crimefighting in a city that can ill afford it.
In report after report, Camden ranks as one of the nation's most dangerous cities. Known as the drug marketplace for locals and suburbanites, the city has a constant presence of U.S. Marshals and state police, along with city police.
But, there have been some promising signs. The murder rate began falling in the summer of 2008 when police reworked their schedules and strategies. They started using more sophisticated data to figure out when and where crime was highest. They used that information to make sure they had more officers on the streets at those times.
Residents of Waterfront South said their problems with the police predated those changes.
Among those whose drug convictions were vacated in December was Josephine Skinner's 46-year-old son, Mark. He said he had been arrested in November 2005, just weeks after he was released from jail on a previous drug-dealing conviction.
Mark Skinner said that 2005 arrest came as he sat on the stoop in front of his mother's home, and that police — including Stetser — slammed him against the wall. Police failed to find drugs on him or in the house, then showed up with a trash bag full of small orange bags of crack worth about $4,000.
He said he pleaded guilty to get a three-year sentence, rather than risk up to 20 years with no chance of parole for a decade if he'd been found guilty at trial.
"I did three years for nothing," he said as he stood on the corner of Broadway and Viola Streets, near a new maritime museum — and a well-known drug spot.
The neighborhood has plenty of stories about problems caused by the police in recent years.
Jamar Dorsey, then a 20-year-old student at Camden County College, said Stetser planted marijuana on him in 2007 and threatened him with drug charges if he didn't lead Stetser to more drugs or weapons.
When Dorsey said he didn't know where drugs could be found, he was charged.
He pleaded guilty to drug possession, taking three years of probation instead of risking a stiffer penalty at trial — even though it meant losing his college financial aid and dropping out of college.
"Who were they going to believe?" Dorsey said. "Me or him?"
Another neighbor, Michelle Kellum, said her disabled son, Gregory, was 15 when he went to a corner store with money from his disability check. Stetser threw him in the back of a police car and took the money, she said, a little more than $100.
Kellum said the officer let her son go after she showed a receipt to prove where the money came from.
"Fat Face had everybody terrified," she said. "You wouldn't see anybody walking out here" when he was around.
And in the end, she said, the questionable police work failed its main objective — taking drugs off the streets.
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