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What happened when Camden started rethinking policing to build trust

June 30, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Historically one of the country's most impoverished and violent cities, Camden, New Jersey, has been working to rebuild its police force from the ground up, recruiting officers from its mostly Latino and African-American community. The new procedures aim to bring police into closer face-to-face interactions with the people they serve in order to foster good relationships. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: a look at how one police force is rethinking the way its officers do their job.

In the aftermath of a succession of deadly police shootings, law enforcement officials across the country have grappled with how police officers might better interact with the public.

In Camden, New Jersey, new procedures meant to bring officers into closer face-to-face contact with the people they serve seem to be having a positive effect.

Hari recently traveled to Camden, and has this report.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Officer Vidal Rivera is a native son of Camden, New Jersey, a street cop who can see the blocks he patrols through eyes that grew up here.

VIDAL RIVERA, Camden Police Department: Out here, it was like a market, like a flea market. You could go to any corner and get whatever you need, or whatever they were looking for. They was coming out to buy drugs.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He’s referring to customers from Philadelphia who came across the Delaware River to buy drugs. They still come in, but in smaller numbers. By day, Rivera is police, by night, a young professional boxer. But he says, as a boy, his mother didn’t let him play outside.

VIDAL RIVERA: It was just too dangerous. There was just too much going on. She feared that something could happen, someone high, driving a car, a shoot-out, everything.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Rivera is part of a revamped force, rebuilt more or less from the ground up in 2014. The faces in the squad room during morning roll call are notably young, new officers recruited to replace an ineffective department.

VIDAL RIVERA: I remember being a kid that, something happened, you weren’t allowed to say nothing to the police.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You weren’t allowed to tell the police because you didn’t trust them?

VIDAL RIVERA: You didn’t trust them. It was the fear that you had.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Historically, one of the country’s most impoverished and violent cities, Camden is home to some 77,000 people, nearly all of them Latino and African-American. And a number of the department’s newer officers have been recruited from the community.

Police Chief Scott Thomson also grew up in Camden, and he has been largely responsible for the reforms. His entire career has been with the Camden P.D. He ordered his officers to leave their cars, patrol neighborhoods on foot, knock on doors, look in on shopkeepers, get to know and become known to the people they served.

CHIEF SCOTT THOMSON, Camden Police Department: We saw, almost instantaneously, a change in the atmosphere within neighborhoods. That’s what people wanted from us, and it has helped us significantly, and for us to provide better policing services to them as well.

One, we have greater lines of communication now, which has given us a tremendous ability to not only solve crime, but prevent crime from occurring in the first place.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The statistics back that up. Since transitioning from the old force to the new in 2014, the number of murders dropped by almost 70 percent, burglaries by 27 percent, robberies 33 percent, and even an eye-catching 143 percent spike in rapes that the department attributes to increased reporting, as well as new broader federal guidelines on what constitutes rape.

Overall, the city’s crime numbers are the lowest in decades. Those are impressive statistics for any police department, and residents don’t dispute them. But some say seeing them in a report vs. feeling the difference every day are two different things.

MAN: I see prostitutes on my street. I see drug transactions on my street, in broad daylight, every day.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This local business owner was one of several people who asked not to be identified, citing concerns that his remarks could complicate relations with local police officers he knows. The crimes, he suspects, are visible to police as well.

MAN: Those must be caught on camera, but I can’t tell that it makes a lot of difference in how much of it or little of it is happening.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Surveillance cameras are a major piece of Chief Thomson’s formula. Some 200 of them are deployed throughout the city. The chief showed us the Central command Center. On these screens are the real-time video feeds from every camera, the location of every officer on patrol. There are also gunshot-detecting microphones placed at certain locations, meaning police know the location of the shots to within a few meters seconds after it happens, and can begin responding before anyone even calls 911.

Still, not everyone is won over. A Camden resident sees both the opportunities and costs of increased surveillance.

MAN: I feel it’s a violation of civil rights, on some level, with the cameras, because now you’re unknowingly filming people who didn’t give you permission to film them. But I have also been on the side where family members has lost other family members to violence and the cameras had assisted in the apprehension of the person who committed the crime.

MAN: If the police department came to me and said, you’re going to have to give up all your privacy, but we’re going to reduce crime, then make you a little bit safer, I would probably say no. Nobody came to me and asked me that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there a concern that people could feel like their civil rights are being violated?

MAN: We don’t have any secret cameras stored away in the city. Everything is overt. They’re up there on a pole. They’re not hidden.

And we’re sensitive to the fact that there’s people that may not necessarily want the camera there. But what we have found is the majority of people do want them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Another major focus of reform is de-escalation, training officers to use force only as a last resort, a tactic that played out dramatically in this video shot two years ago.

A man was wielding a knife at a restaurant, then began walking down the street brandishing the weapon. Rather than taking him down, police formed a containment bubble around him, then followed him for blocks until he could be disarmed. That restraint and patience earned praise from the chief.

SCOTT THOMSON: We’re handling them exactly the way that we want to. And at the end of the day, you know, what’s happening is, more people are being returned to their family. And every time that an officer pulls the trigger, it’s life-altering for them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: His department’s records show that, since 2014, the frequency of officers using force has dropped by 24 percent. And citizen complaints of police using excessive force are down 49 percent. But do these methods put an officer’s own life at risk?

MAN: Sir, drop the knife, or I will Tase you.

SCOTT THOMSON: What we’re telling officers to do is slow it down, is — that which we’re training officers to do is actually safer for the officers, when, historically, officers have been rushing into situations because that’s the training we provide, and it’s been dangerous for them, and often leaving them with the only option that’s left is deadly force.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s counter to the more militarized approaches taken by other cities.

What’s the hardest part about changing culture?

SCOTT THOMSON: So, for us, it was that transition from warrior to guardian. You still have to have the warrior mentality and the ability to trigger that warrior element when the time calls for it. However, that shouldn’t be your operating premise. That should be the anomaly. Right? That should be the exception, not the rule.

The rule should be, you’re a guardian. You’re in this neighborhood.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Throughout this story, I spoke to a number of people sitting on their stoops and sitting on their porches, but none of them wanted to talk to me on camera. It wasn’t because they felt that the new police practices were helping their neighborhood or hurting. It was a mixed bag.

It was because they felt that talking to me would invite unwanted attention.

Some feared a police they still didn’t fully trust. And others feared drug dealers, who may have left street corners, but are now behind closed doors.

TIM GALLAGHER, Social Worker, Guadalupe Family Services: There were just dime bags and needles all over the place.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Tim Gallagher is a social worker at Guadalupe Family Services. He works on a block that’s seen tremendous improvement, but he is still cautious.

TIM GALLAGHER: I think their Manning concerns are that it could happen again, that the good cops who are here will leave, and that other cops will replace them who won’t really know the neighborhood.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Good cops like Vidal Rivera, who is 6-0 in the ring, undefeated, but knows the fight for the streets of his hometown is just getting started.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan in Camden, New Jersey.