Cities often strive to break records, but Camden, N.J., is buckling down, desperate not to shatter the homicide record it broke last year. A new county police force that began this year seems to be making some headway.
The man charged with bringing a sense of safety to the notoriously dangerous city, Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson, draws inspiration for the tough task from a painting hanging on the wall of his office of George Washington as a revolutionary general, kneeling in the snow next to a horse.
"There was a leader that seemed to be up against an intractable situation," Thomson said.
Thomson describes himself as a man of faith, and it isn't lost on him that the painting shows Washington kneeling in prayer. "This was during the Revolutionary War, when odds seemed to be extremely stacked against our colonial militia," he said.
The odds haven't smiled on Camden for quite a while, but Thomson says things have improved since the new county police force took control on May 1. Murders and daytime shootings are down; violent crime is down 11 percent.
To combat the crime-ridden streets, Thomson said the department is trying a blend of old-school policing and technology: getting officers out of their cars and onto foot patrols and using microphones to record gunshots and cameras to capture license plate numbers and remotely keep an eye on the streets.
"Within the first 90 days, we have seen results that have exceeded all expectations," he said. "We have been able to empower the community to—particularly in the Parkside and Fairview communities—to reclaim their own corners, areas that were once open-air drug markets with flagrant crime occurring."
'Starting over, basically'
On a recent afternoon in Fairview, a bunch of little kids played football on a patch of grass. Kenwood Hagamin, 16, said he's noticed the increased police presence.
"The day that they started that, it seemed like everybody stopped doing what they were doing," Hagamin said—including the drug dealers who used to call this square home.
A few feet away, Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli, Jr. looked on. He said there has been a big change in this target neighborhood.
"Folks have not felt safe enough to have their kids out playing sports in this park. Now, with this police presence, there's a difference," he said. "Crime is down in this neighborhood over 80 percent since we started."
While long-ailing Camden has made some in-roads, its crime rate is still high. In this city of 77,000 people, there have been 31 homicides this year, compared with 41 to this point last year. The incidence of some other crimes, including robbery and arson, has not declined.
Still, Cappelli says people from across the Garden State are looking at what's happening in Camden, where the city police force was dissolved, along with the union contract.
"I'm absolutely confident that in cities like Trenton, Atlantic City, Newark, this model would work," Cappelli said. "The model is this: It's starting over, basically."
Others are not so ready to declare victory.
Measuring progress in different ways
Father Jeff Putthoff is a Jesuit priest who runs the youth development program Hopeworks 'N Camden. He said he's happy to see more police and less drug activity near the group's building. But he said Camden's huge challenges require more than a change in police tactics. He said the ailing city needs a systemic solution to its many challenges.
"Forty-three percent of our population lives below the poverty line. Up to 70 percent drop out of high school," he said. "We need to see holistically how all these pieces work together to impact a person's safety and consequently the way they behave in a community."
Putthoff says to change the behavior of people, it's important to understand the conditions and experiences that are driving their behavior.
On the ground, police said they're taking tiny steps to try to make change. Back in Fairview, Camden Patrolman Jarrod Broadway said he's simply working to build a connection with the neighborhood.
"Day in and day out day, you see the same people, so you're able to address the concerns of the residents more easily," Broadway said.
Business owners like Al Rose are taking notice, too. The owner of Al Rose Apothecary is a Camden veteran. He's had his business for more than 40 years. He said since the new county force took over he has seen an improvement.
"We feel more secure. I think our neighbors feel more secure," Rose said. "Our business has increased 20 percent or so because of it."
Rose said he's seeing customers who haven't come by in over a decade. "I had a guy today come in—I haven't seen him in 16 years. So they feel comfortable coming in now," he said.
In Camden, the ravages of chronic violence have created a hunger for even modest improvement. Broadway said one thing has surprised him since he came to the job a few months ago. "Kids run up to you, they hug you, kids that you've never seen," he said
There are many ways to measure progress. Crime rates are one. Cash in Al Rose's register is another. Broadway said he hopes the number of surprise hugs he gets are a sign of a city getting safer.