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Tags: Camden | New Jersey | Police Reform

What Really Happened in Camden, NJ

police officer walks in front of grafitti on brick wall
Camden County Police Department officer Louis Sanchez is seen on foot patrol in Camden, New Jersey, on May 24, 2017.  (AFP via Getty Images)

By    |   Friday, 19 June 2020 08:50 AM EDT

As a radical movement to defund police agencies gains legitimacy among Democratic politicians at the federal, state and local levels; Camden, New Jersey has been an example of "disband the police" to "improve" crime rates. Unfortunately, this example isn't true. The fact is, Camden didn't reduce their police presence, they more than doubled it by creating a County Police agency in 2013 to absorb the duties of the city's municipal police department.

In 2012, Camden was arguably the most dangerous city in America. Despite only being 10 square miles in size, Camden set a record for having 67 murders in 2012, a national per capita high for a city of only 77,000 residents. In contrast, Seattle had a population of 636,495 and 26 murders in 2012. Camden's unusually high crime rate can be attributed to the fact that it was also one of America's poorest cities, with a tax base that could not afford a police agency large enough to address it's crime rate. Low tax revenue and a half-century of economic decline led to budget cuts that impacted essential city services. In 2012, attrition rates had left the city police with only 175 officers, with as little as 12 officers to patrol the entire city at times.

The next year, Republican Gov. Chris Christie approved a plan to dissolve the Camden Police Department and replace it with a "Camden County Police" that only works in the city of Camden and none of the county's 35 other municipalities. Furthermore, the assertion by "defunding police" advocates that disbanding the Camden Police was a solution to "corruption and systemic racism" is also false. The newly-established County Police hired the vast majority of the city's primarily African-American and Latino force, as well as 100 other officers from outside Camden. Camden is now policed by more than 400 officers, one of the highest per-capita police presences in America.

Therefore, the argument that Camden defunded or disbanded its police department is completely false.  The fact is, Camden's law enforcement resources, could be considered unsustainable and almost impossible to replicate on a national level. While Camden's population and tax base have not substantially grown, the Camden County Police budget is roughly $68 million per year. By contrast, Paterson, another high-crime New Jersey city with a population nearly double Camden's, estimates its annual police budget at $45 million.

Not only is Camden's police presence high, its effectiveness and efficiency are questionably low. Instead of proactive enforcement paired with effective investigations, Camden's model seems to attempt to create an overwhelming police presence coupled with Orwellian surveillance technologies that attempt to deter crimes by assuring the police are 'always around the corner.'  Camden's 10 miles now have over 400 police officers who are supported by 100 high-tech cameras covering the entire city equipped with shot-spotter technology, a mobile 30-foot patrol crane and license plate reader technology deployed from a 24-hour command center.

Despite all of these resources, Camden is still one of the most dangerous cities in America; with a 2019 violent crime rate eight times New Jersey's average violent crime rate.

The argument that the Camden model is inefficient is often rebutted by the argument that Camden has reformed policing through community engagement, which includes the deployment of officers on foot patrol and creating policies that limit use-of-force. This has been echoed in mainstream media coverage which have covered Camden's policing strategies favorably. Ironically, the very community policing strategies employed in Camden can arguably be defined as "broken windows" policing, which has regularly been derided by progressives who are now proponents of police defunding. Thus, the ACLU criticized the Camden County Police's enforcement of low-level offenses.

While last year's crime rate was the lowest in decades, Camden represents a cautionary tale for municipal governance, not a national example.

Camden's history of urban decay is reflective of decades of unsustainable taxation, corruption and crime that has plagued New Jersey for generations. For over 150 years, Camden was a major economic and transportation hub, sharing the waterfront with Philadelphia. In the early 20th century, 12,000 workers were employed at RCA Victor, which had 23 out of its 25 factories in Camden. Another 30,000 worked at New York Shipbuilding and Camden Forge Company supplied materials during both world wars. Campbell's Soup. currently headquartered in Camden, was also a major employer. Camden also had a bustling shopping district and many textile manufacturing companies as well.

In the latter half of the 20th century, Camden's biggest employers, RCA Victor and the Campbell Soup Company, decentralized their production operations to evade skyrocketing taxes and rising union labor costs. While Campbell's is still headquartered in Camden, the bulk of its canneries relocated after union strikes supported by local politicians. Similarly, RCA relocated its plants to more business-friendly Indiana. Then, the New York Shipbuilding Corporation, Camden's largest postwar employer, shut down in 1967 due to mismanagement, labor unrest, accident liability and lower demand. Soon afterward, white-collar workers and retail consumers followed suit; leaving Camden for the offices and massive shopping mall built in neighboring Cherry Hill. This decline led to a massive drop in population which put a strain on Camden's tax base. In 1950 there were 124,555 residents, compared to just 73,562 today.  With the economic decline, civil unrest and criminal activity rose in the city.

When a city faces an industrial decline, it needs to either reinvent itself in a more business-friendly way, eliminate patronage to downsize government to meet a lower tax base, or reorganize with a regional/county government. Camden did none of those and ended up declaring bankruptcy in 1999, serving as the canary in a coal mine for cities like Detroit.

The fact that those arguing for a defunding of law enforcement are citing the example of a city who had an county takeover of law enforcement leading to a doubling of police, but still has an unacceptably high crime rate illustrates the absurdity of their argument. Instead of efforts to weaken proven policing tactics, legislators should focus on failures in local governance that have led to generations of societal decay, which has been proven to drive poor people into a cycle of criminality. That would be a national discussion in where Camden would serve as a more accurate example.

A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his two and a half decade career on both sides the criminal justice system. Mannes served in both federal and municipal law enforcement in though the 9/11 attacks, D.C.-area sniper task force, homeland security exercises and natural disasters. Mannes' work in D.C. led to personal encounters with the D.C.'s unlawful personnel actions, unconstitutional gun laws and criminal justice inequalities, which led him to become an advocate for public integrity. Thereafter, Mannes served for nearly nine years as the Director, Office of Investigations for North America's largest medical board, as a Chief Compliance Officer, consultant, expert witness, nonprofit board member and political adviser. Read A. Benjamin Mannes' Reports — More Here.

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As a radical movement to defund police agencies gains legitimacy among Democratic politicians at the federal, state and local levels; Camden, New Jersey has been an example of "disband the police" to "improve" crime rates. Unfortunately, this example isn't true.
Camden, New Jersey, Police Reform
Friday, 19 June 2020 08:50 AM
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