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The Camden Police Department Is Not A Model For Policing In The Post-George Floyd Era

The New Jersey department received slavish media praise after it was disbanded and reoriented toward community policing. But behind the reformist mask was an embrace of surveillance and broken windows policing.

Camden County Police Department officer Louis Sanchez is seen on foot patrol in Camden, New Jersey, on May 24, 2017.Timothy A. Clark/AFP/Getty Images

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

What was once unthinkable is now necessary. On Sunday, members of the Minneapolis City Council announced their intent to disband the police department and shift to community-based strategies. But what exactly comes next? The gravity of this question leaves many anxious and searching for answers. Enter the Camden model

In 2013, Camden, New Jersey, disbanded its police department and created a new force, the Camden County Police, which despite its name only has jurisdiction over the city of Camden. The new force embraced community policing. Crime fell. The total number of violent crimes decreased from 1,950 in 2013 to 1,197 in 2018. This 38 percent decline has attracted significant media attention since Sunday. Newsweek described Camden as a “a model for other police departments across the country.” To many, if Camden, a struggling city known nationally for high crime and poverty, can disband the police and be better for it, then perhaps there is a quick fix to the problems behind the uprisings after the death of George Floyd.

But there are no easy answers to deeply entrenched social problems like police violence or racism. Camden is not a model for structural change. It’s an obstacle to it. The history is important: Camden disbanded its police department as part of state-imposed austerity measures, setting the stage for top-down reforms that were never focused on the well-being of the city’s residents. Today, ubiquitous surveillance and aggressive policing lurks underneath the media-friendly optics of community policing and the technocratic luster of “smart,” data-driven policing. 

What the Camden model represents is a police reform project to make the slight shift from mass incarceration—the overreliance on imprisonment to address social problems—to mass supervision, the use of police and surveillance to manage the social problems outside prison. It’s sold with language that liberals love: community, engagement, and participation. It’s a dangerous idea being used to sidestep nationwide uprisings demanding real change to the status quo.

Scott Thomson, the recently retired police chief of both the disbanded Camden Police and the Camden County Police, talks a good game. “The most important roles for the police are as guardian figures and community builders,” he told a reporter in December 2014. “Police must strive to employ the greatest force multiplier—the people—to coalesce around the common objective of safety and wellbeing.” Five months later, President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing offered a package of procedural reforms to address the crisis in law enforcement legitimacy after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The panel recommended a cultural shift to “embrace a guardian—rather than a warrior—mindset.” Fast forward to the present. Police legitimacy has collapsed. Yet on Sunday, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted that the “Minneapolis Guardians has a nice ring to it.”

But what does the work of “guardian figures and community builders” actually entail? Fawning media profiles describe barbecues, ice cream trucks, and basketball games. They don’t mention surveillance systems: 121 cameras that monitor the entire city; 35 ShotSpotter microphones to detect gunshots; automated scanners that read license plates; and SkyPatrol, a mobile observation post that can scan six square blocks with thermal-imaging equipment. They don’t mention the Real Time Tactical Operational Intelligence Center (RT-TOIC), which produces the intelligence to direct police operations.

In 2016, I traveled to Camden as part of a research project on police intelligence systems. I accompanied a Camden County police officer and public affairs official on a “directed patrol” in a “guardian zone.” It was a rebranding of what would be called a “saturation patrol” in a “hot spot” elsewhere in the country. The officer explained:

The guardian zones are basically a way for us to proactively address crime conditions. … In this area, we’re supposed [to] address assault incidents and possible drug-related conditions. … We’re expected to be proactive so we make lots of pedestrian stops, not necessarily in a negative way but we get out and talk to residents. … Occasionally, you’ll stop somebody, you’ll talk to somebody who will share information about a crime that they witnessed or maybe something they’ve heard. We’ll do what’s called a Community Intelligence Report to record the information. 

Later, we drove past a man rolling a marijuana cigarette in public. “He’s walkin’ down the street rolling a blunt! I should write him up and lock him up and I will. Now, I’m officially pissed off,” the officer said. She circled back but the man had disappeared from sight. “If I was by myself, I’d find him and put him in the back of this car.” I asked the officer if she would consider confiscating the marijuana and giving the man a warning. But she simply repeated the mantra of “broken windows” policing, which is based on the idea that rigorous enforcement of “quality of life” offenses is necessary because not doing so would lead to “disorder.” “It’s against the law and they know it’s against the law,” she said. “Why I should give you discretion when you’re blatantly disrespecting the law? It doesn’t make any sense! If I did, they’d think it was OK and then it goes from walking down the street smoking a blunt to selling on this block. It just escalates. We don’t want that.”  The ride-along ended soon after. An announcement from the RT-TOIC came across the radio that all reports needed to be in by 12:30 p.m.

“Community policing is just how they’re selling broken windows,” Darnell Hardwick of the Camden County NAACP told me. “They’ve increased contacts with the community by citing people for anything and everything.” When the Camden County Police launched, they were extremely aggressive. The municipal court struggled to process the 125,000 cases, citations, and tickets issued by the new force between July 2013 through June 2014, a 97,000 case increase from the previous year. Many of these cases were petty offenses. From July through October 2014, the Camden County Police wrote 99 tickets for riding a bicycle without a bell. They issued one in the previous year. The daily grind of broken windows policing means constant police harassment and abuse. In 2014, excessive force complaints reached 65, nearly twice the number of the previous year and more than the combined total for two largest cities in the state, Newark and Jersey City. None of the excessive force complaints in 2014 were sustained by Camden County Police internal affairs, which the New Jersey ACLU said “raises serious red flags about a lack of accountability.” And found that Black people in Camden are nearly 4.5 times more likely to have force used on them during an arrest than a white person. 

Camden did improve from here, but credit shouldn’t go to Thomson, who received lavish media attention. The NAACP and other local activists, conducted their own research and took public officials to task. Camden’s much praised de-escalation training, the Guardian Culture Program, was put in place to address concerns of community organizers.

The danger of the Camden model is that it does “work” but not in the ways that liberal reformers want us to think. Aggressive policing can manage social problems to some extent. Despite concerns about officials manipulating the statistics, crime has fallen in Camden. But policing can’t eliminate the roots of these problems, only manage them with violence and public relations spin. Community policing is just the public face of broken windows. Camden’s “smarter” data-driven approach is “copaganda” that presents ubiquitous surveillance and aggressive policing as more practical “reforms” to blunt and overtake the more radical demands emerging from the tear-gas-choked streets.  

Don’t believe the hype.

Brendan McQuade is an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Southern Maine and author of “Pacifying the Homeland.”