Former Camden Police Chief J. Scott Thomson (left) and current Camden Police Chief Joseph D.  Wysocki (Camden Police Department photo) George Floyd Protest in Newark (People’s Organization for Progress photo)

By D. Kevin McNeir
Executive Editor, New Jersey Urban News

In the weeks following the death of George Floyd whose demise occurred due to the actions of police officers in Minneapolis, frequent references have been made to Camden – a city known just under a decade ago for its ineffective, albeit highly-overzealous, police department and a crime rate which ranked at the top among all U.S. municipalities.

But after the city faced a disturbing spike in its homicide rate in 2012 – the most violent year in Camden’s history – none could argue that change was essential. And like the proponents in Minneapolis today who are calling for a total disbanding of the department, Camden’s transformation began by starting from scratch.

In 2012, Camden, with a population of 77,000, tallied 67 homicides, 172 shooting victims and 175 open-air drug markets. Police often left crime scenes unattended, forced to move on and respond to another shooting. Children could not walk to school safely. And the city’s murder rate was 18 times more than the national average. As a means of comparison, more people were killed in Camden that year than were killed in New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Hawaii combined.

Today, the much-changed Camden County Police Department is led by Joseph D. Wysocki, a 50-year-old veteran police officer, who serves as the chief of police. Recently, Wysocki was captured in an image marching with city residents protesting the police-involved murder of Floyd and surrounded by a group of mostly Blacks wearing T-shirts or holding signs which read “Black Lives Matter.”

But Wysocki owes part of his success to the efforts of J. Scott Thomson, the former chief (2008-2019), who overcame the objections of citizens, the police union and city officials in the overhauling of the department to establish an effective relationship between the police and city residents through a carefully-constructed community policing model and strategy.

However, as Thomson has said on numerous occasions, their hard-fought success was only possible because of a team effort that included the mayor, city council, the governor and, of course, a revamped police department.

Thomson spoke to the process of remaking the city’s culture in a recently-published editorial in The Washington Post.

“The police were not always helping. The city needed guardians but officers saw themselves as warriors seeking to dominate criminals through toughness. Citizens didn’t trust us . . . I was handcuffed by legacy work rules and binding arbitrator decisions that made it difficult to hold officers accountable for misconduct or poor performance.”

“So we started from scratch. We let every city police officer go and created a new department with new rules in 2013. By agreement with Camden County, the city ceased to fund its department and instead paid the county to police the city of Camden. We required all officers to apply as new hires and committed to a new relationship between Camden’s police and its citizens, around 95 percent of whom are minorities.”

Among the changes that Thomson would implement were: a clear definition of “reasonable force” which was developed through the assistance of New York University’s Policing Project; a new set of rules for officers which emphasized that de-escalation had to come first; the implementation of cameras and devices to detect gunfire throughout the city; the redirection of police from desks and precincts to the streets where they could establish relationships with citizens, especially youth.

Clearly, Minneapolis and Camden are two very different cities. But much can be learned from the incremental changes that occurred within the department – something which Thomson says remained critical if real change is going to take place and be effective.

“It’s an industry that generally is averse to any type of change,” Thomson said to a CNN reporter.

But change did occur, albeit slowly. At the end of 2019, homicides in Camden were down 63 percent with total crime at its lowest in decades. With its police force rebuilt, Camden’s residents enjoyed a much safer city and celebrated a police department that significantly-reduced the use of excessive force.

Minneapolis City Councilmembers have vowed to disband the current police department but have yet to provide specifics – that is, what or who will replace it if the department disbands. However, given the positive results to which Camden can point, the process which was followed does serve as an example that bears careful analysis by city officials and law enforcement representatives in Minneapolis.

“There’s a raging debate right now about ‘defunding’ the police but it’s missing the point,” Thomson writes. “Communities need police. What they don’t need is a cop with a warrior’s psyche and in occupier’s mentality. Camden’s transformation wasn’t about getting rid of police or reducing their authority. It was about increasing our legitimacy by convincing citizens that we understood our role. We didn’t reinvent policing so much as reset it to what it always should have been.”

“Policing works in a democratic society only when it has the consent of the people. The old Camden city police department had forgotten that.”

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