Skip to main content

Features

Black & blue

In a tense climate for police officers—including many minorities—pursuing relationships with a sometimes-jaded public remains key to serving and protecting citizens

Black & blue

Camden County Police Officer Brenda Santiago peers into a vacant building, which has been used by squatters in the past, during a foot patrol in Camden, N.J. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux)

Doug Strickland/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP

Police Chief Fred Fletcher (left) talks with Dorothy Gardner during a walk through the Ridgedale neighborhood of Chattanooga, Tenn. Chief Fletcher organized these walks to bring the community into contact with officers and build relationships.

Camden Police Dept.

Lt. Verticelli visits children at a summer camp in Camden.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Camden County Police officers play basketball with teens in the Parkside neighborhood of Camden.

Handout

Randy Brashears

Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux

Scott Thomson

Daniel James Devine

‘I try to balance being a policeman with being someone they can look up to and come talk to.’ —Tommie Tatum

Jim Young/Reuters/Landov

A woman walks past a fenced-up store in downtown Gary, Ind.

Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

In an effort to foster some good will Missouri State Highway Patrol Trooper D. Reuter chats with protester Robert Clark in Ferguson, Mo.

Jennifer Shephard/The Elkhart Truth/AP

Elkhart, Ind., Police Senior Chaplain Jim Bontrager (left) and neighborhood resident Ellen Parks (right) console a relative of a shooting victim.

CAMDEN, N.J. and GARY, Ind.—When Randy Brashears attended a law enforcement convention in Orlando, Fla., the police chief from Massachusetts found protesters from Miami waiting for the policemen at the convention center.

“Hands up, don’t shoot,” they chanted to passing officers at the event late last year.

It was a familiar slogan demonstrators across the country used to protest the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson during a confrontation in Ferguson, Mo., last August. 

Brashears—who is black—was more surprised to hear the protesters shout another, less familiar slogan: “Shame-shame-shame. Whose side are you on?”

“It made me sad,” says Brashears. “You say you want more black officers, but this is how you treat them?”

Brashears isn’t the only black officer heckled during recent protests over the death of Michael Brown and the chokehold death of black citizen Eric Garner during a confrontation with a white officer in New York City.

During a tumultuous demonstration in San Francisco in November, protesters excoriated police with obscenities and crude hand gestures, and spit on the sidewalks as officers patrolled. One protester yelled at a black officer: “We’re ashamed of you. Your children are ashamed of you.” The crowd chanted: “Sellout cop! Sellout cop!”

Bisa French, a black police captain in nearby Richmond, Calif., told the San Francisco Chronicle such sentiment was difficult for many officers in her force to absorb. “I certainly understand that there are injustices within the criminal justice system, but we’re all being condemned,” she said. “Some of our officers feel like they are out there doing the right thing on a daily basis, but they are getting judged for the actions of the few who do wrong.”

Department of Justice statistics show use of force by police officers is rare. Statistics also show indictments of officers accused of using deadly force are few, raising questions for some about the best process for weighing such charges.

For some 800,000 members of U.S. law enforcement working between those two poles, the current tensions highlight a crucial question: How should officers best serve communities and protect citizens?

Scholars and experts have spliced those questions for decades. In the 1980s, the Department of Justice began encouraging police departments to pursue community policing—a broad concept with many variations, usually focused on how officers relate directly with citizens.

Even that concept has been debated: Some citizens believe community policing primarily should involve officers arresting more offenders. Others think it should emphasize officers preventing offenders from committing crimes. Others say the method should fall somewhere in the middle.

Whatever the case, crime in the United States has dropped significantly in the last two decades: From 1993 to 2000, the rate of violent crime fell by 32 percent. It dropped by more than 23 percent from 2000 to 2012.

Experts debate why crime rates are falling, but at least some local forces attribute the drop to better relationships between officers and citizens, especially those living in the highest crime communities. A close look at policing in two different parts of the country—Camden, N.J., and Gary, Ind.—shows notable results.

CAMDEN COUNTY Police Lt. Richard Verticelli was a SWAT commander in Camden, N.J.’s worst days: when it was the poorest, most violent city in the country. At the peak of violence in 2012, someone shot someone every 32 hours on average. The city of 80,000 across the Delaware River from Philadelphia reportedly had the purest heroin in the country. That year a Camden mom beheaded her 2-year-old while high. Veteran officers recall wrestling criminals high on drugs, along with shoot-outs, and responding to one homicide only to hear another shooting in progress a block away. Verticelli and his fellow officers remember viewing themselves as a military organization in a war with Camden.

“You assume everyone is involved in the drug trade. You’re standing on a corner, you’re a drug dealer,” Verticelli recalled on a January afternoon as he sat in the office of Shelley Smith, the African-American pastor of Ferry Avenue United Methodist Church in Camden. He and a few of his officers on patrol had just stepped into the church to see the pastor as snow fell outside.

“That’s when we see the tension today, when they’re responding to us like we’re the enemy,” said Smith.

The militaristic approach behind the police force has changed, and Camden has changed. Verticelli is one part of a radical community policing policy that in the last year helped drop the number of homicides in Camden by 42 percent. In 2014 the city had its safest summer in 30 years.

Postindustrial cities like Camden often see crime decline simply because of declining population, but Camden’s fell while the city population held relatively steady. The drop is partly a result of better technology and more efficient staffing at the police department. But the police leadership attributes it mostly to better relationships between the police and the neighborhoods they patrol.

The night before he dropped in on Smith, Verticelli had held the first neighborhood meeting at the Methodist church. It was momentous: Smith recalled that until recently the church couldn’t hold night meetings because no one would come—too dangerous. In Smith’s decades of experience in Camden, police also never had reached out to the church. Recently it looked as if the church had been broken into, and when police arrived, neighbors of their own volition came out to talk to police about what might have happened. The church break-in turned out to be a false alarm, but that kind of cooperation is new.

Local leaders in the neighborhood surrounding the church now have Verticelli’s cell phone number, and he tells them to call him day or night. Verticelli said he knew he was getting somewhere at the first church meeting: “Half the people there, I already knew them.”

Police Chief Scott Thomson—whom one local referred to as the “patron saint of Camden”—is the man behind the push for this brand of community policing. He and his colleagues think other police departments—struggling with the local hostility seen in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere—can learn from Camden’s example.

To succeed, a department’s leadership has to “find the pulse of the city,” said 18-year veteran Sgt. Raphael Thornton, an African-American. “Then it trickles down.” It helps that half the Camden force—and a larger percentage of its leadership—are racial minorities, although it’s not as diverse as the city of Camden, which is mostly black and Hispanic.

For all the progress, officers still can feel like the enemy sometimes. Thornton grew up in Camden and worked on the action-packed night shifts on SWAT teams with Verticelli. He said morale took a dip after all the news this past year.

“Sometimes you go into a Dunkin’ Donuts and you can feel people’s eyes burning in you,” said Thornton. “I tell [my officers], ‘It’s not you. You have the power to change public perception just by being out there.’” After everything that has happened this year, he thinks, “a lot of other police departments will get back to community policing. It’s not a new concept.”

Even immediately after the murder of two New York Police Department officers in Brooklyn last December as they sat in their patrol car, Police Chief Thomson urged his officers not to be “paranoid.” He reminded them the relationships police have built make “a safer Camden not just for the residents, but for the patrolling officers as well.”

Only 7 percent of Camden residents have a college degree, and 40 percent live below the poverty level. Thomson views police work as one part of addressing the larger issue of poverty. His department regularly works with ministries in the city to combat prostitution and drugs.

“Financially, drugs are the only opportunity,” said Sgt. William Martin, a Camden veteran who works in the 2nd District under Verticelli. Recently Verticelli stopped a young man on a bike who was working as a lookout for a drug dealer. Instead of arresting him, he gave him information for a job placement program in Camden. The commander said an arrest would only shrink the man’s job opportunities.

As part of Thomson’s vision, officers—even veterans on the force—do constant foot patrols. On a recent patrol in late January, two officers from the 3rd District walked through their assigned neighborhood and checked with local businesses, asking how they were doing. Some businesses in the 3rd District used to close at nightfall; now they stay open until 9 or 10 p.m. In October, a PriceRite opened, the first new grocery store in Camden in 45 years.

Across town on that same snowy January day officers on foot patrol in the 2nd District walked through a trash-strewn alley and passed three boarded-up homes. But next door was a house that had been cleaned up and landscaped. One of the officers, 15-year veteran Bob Schwartz, sounding bewildered, said he’d seen someone exercising outside.

Camden is still a high-crime, high-poverty city. The public works truck deployed to board up the city’s thousands of abandoned houses still makes its regular rounds. The night WORLD was there, prostitutes stood on the street in the snow, a sign of the desperate drug addiction gripping the city. Just one week before that snowy night, Thornton was in an hour-and-a-half-long car chase. The city already has its first homicides of the year.

But small changes, as when a child greeted Sgt. Martin by name in a library the other day, are giving police and locals hope.

“There’s way more people that want to make a change in this city than I thought,” said Verticelli.

IN GARY, Tommie Tatum is a traffic cop. Some call him “Traffic Tatum.” Others call him “Little Tatum” because he’s thin and one of five Tatums on the Gary, Ind., police force. The others include Big Tatum, Bigger Tatum (Tommie’s uncle), and Pretty Boy Tatum. Tommie Tatum also goes by 1557—the number on his silver badge, pinned next to a blue tie.

Tatum, 27, was raised in Gary, a onetime steel boomtown that long ago spiraled into stagnation, blight, and crime. On a January afternoon in the basement of the Gary Police Department, Tatum looked over a poster with snapshots of local gang members grouped by gang name: Latin Kings. Vice Lords. Poe Family Gang. Grimey Boyz.

“I grew up or went to school with half of these guys,” he said. He tapped a few unhappy faces among the 22nd Avenue Boys. “This guy’s dead. That guy’s dead. He’s locked up. … It’s sad, man.”

In the 1990s, Gary had the highest murder rate in the United States. Violent crimes and robberies have dropped since then but remain a significant problem. Last year there were 49 homicides in Gary, a city of 79,000.

The Gary police force, with 232 officers, has the tough job of bagging criminals while swaying young people from a lifestyle of theft and drug dealing. As in Camden, those crimes for some seem the easiest way to make a buck. Many youth feel desperate: About two out of five city residents are impoverished.

Tatum is a police officer trying to see past his city’s bleak circumstances and offer a positive role model to youth.

When WORLD joined Tatum on his evening patrol, we cruised Ridge Road, checking cars with a squealing radar. Over the next few hours we’d catch two or three speeders and report two accidents. At one, a young, pregnant woman—the owner of a wrecked Pontiac—cried and yelled expletives. Tatum responded calmly: “Miss, just calm down. You don’t have to curse, you don’t have to yell.”

Tatum said he tries to build trust with residents by showing them respect, even if they don’t always act respectably. “Show them you’re not the ‘bad cop’ that the media displays sometimes.”

We stop at Charter School of the Dunes and go inside. Its high-school basketball team, the Trailblazers, was tied up with an opposing team from Chicago. Tatum watched the game from the sidelines.

On defense, the Trailblazers lost a rebound, and a player fouled. During the free-throw lineup, Tatum caught the eye of a player and signaled to him: You’ve got to box out!

“One of my students,” Tatum explained. Besides being a traffic cop, Tatum works as a school security guard. Some kids remember him by name: Little Tatum.

Two players fell to the floor in a tangle, and a whistle blew. It was halftime. Trailblazers were up, 26-25.

“I try to balance being a policeman with being someone they can look up to and come talk to,” Tatum said as we drove off. “You never know, that might have made his day—somebody telling him he wasn’t boxing out. Somebody was paying attention to him playing basketball.”

Traffic Tatum responded to nontraffic calls as needed. Shortly after 7 that night, someone on the police radio announced a “ten-zero”—an apparent dead body. We sped to the scene and found a row of apartments and a dumpster overflowing with garbage. Moments earlier, a man’s body had been lying twisted on the pavement nearby. Now the man was inside an ambulance, where a hunched-over medic performed chest compressions.

“He has a fresh needle entry on his vein,” Detective Simon Lillie told us, tapping his own arm. Drugs. Maybe someone pushed him out of a car, or maybe he just tripped and hit his head.

A few weeks ago Tatum responded to the scene of a car that crashed into a house. The driver, who’d been helping deliver a pizza, had been shot to death in his seat.

“That could be my cousin. That could be my brother,” Tatum said.

In a city where gang conflict and drug deals gone bad lead to violent retribution, Tatum said, he tries not to jump to judgment when another person is killed. Instead he’ll “say a quick prayer for his family. Because I’m a human just like he’s a human. We’re all put on this earth for a reason. Everyone makes mistakes.”

Tatum could have made mistakes too. But unlike many kids in Gary, he grew up with a mom and dad at home, and they looked out for him. In the afternoons he went to the Boys & Girls Club or band practice (playing snare drum). Other kids teased him for skateboarding—an unusual hobby in the ’90s for an African-American kid from Gary. He rode a go-kart in his backyard. His dad built his first dirt bike, a Kawasaki KZ900.

Today, Tatum still goes off-roading on the weekends, but not in Gary: The only public off-road park he knows of is two hours south. “They don’t think African-Americans get into dirt biking,” he said, frustrated. He thinks the city, which is 84 percent black, should designate an area as an off-road park, a place for young people to ride. “Get them something to do besides walking the street.”

Instead of dirt bike parks, we passed building after building that’s abandoned, burnt out, or collapsing. Houses have holes in roofs and boarded windows. Even Tatum’s old elementary school is abandoned. Tatum called it “zombieland”—a disheartening landscape for those who grow up here.

We responded to a domestic disturbance call. Inside a home, a woman said two teenagers—her friend’s sons, who’ve been living there—have been pounding on the bedroom door and threatening her.

The boys, chuckling but sheepish, denied everything, so Tatum and another officer took them to a back bedroom to talk. They complained the woman is impossible to get along with, that she argues with them over petty things, like the television volume. “You still got to respect,” said Tatum. The officers reprimanded the boys, gently and firmly: She’s an adult. Turn down the TV. Don’t talk back. Say “yes, ma’am.”

The boys, 17 and 13, said their dad was in the hospital with kidney problems, and their mother was living with a boyfriend. “It’s too hard. I’m telling you. You’ll never understand,” said the older boy, ruefully.

Tatum persisted. Set an example to your little brother. Take out a book. Turn off the TV. Get in a boxing ring. “Go get your lift on. Start building yourself up. … You can start lifting that bed up—you look pretty strong!” The boy laughed.

The officers finally made the brothers come out and apologize to the woman.

“It’s not a bad job. It’s what you make of it,” Tatum said as we drove off. Once, he responded to a domestic disturbance that turned out to be a boy frustrated with his homework. Tatum sat and helped him with the assignments.

“There’s a certain way I police this city,” he said. “I have to live in this city.”

FOR OFFICERS LIKE Randy Brashears, Richard Verticelli, and Tommie Tatum, the idea of building relationships is more than a policing method—it’s personal too, part of taking care of where they live.

Brashears as a board member of the Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers (FCPO) spent 20 years working in some of the toughest neighborhoods in Baltimore County, Md., and says compassion was a crucial ingredient in effective policing: “This work place is a mission field.”

That meant a corner of Brashear’s mission field included the living room of a troubled teenage boy in a drug-ridden neighborhood: The officer remembers showing up at the young man’s house with a copy of Twice Pardoned, a Focus on the Family movie about a convict transformed by faith in Christ. Brashears didn’t just drop off the film—he stayed and watched it with the teen.

Another corner of Brashear’s mission field was an Italian restaurant where the officer gathered parents of juvenile offenders to discuss the family’s role in preventing youth from committing crimes. A packet he gave parents included Christian material on parenting.

One of the saddest corners: The apartment of a paralyzed man who attempted suicide. After the young man recovered, Brashears returned to invite him to church, then on Sunday mornings in his pickup truck took him to worship services.

M.C. Williams, now a Colorado state investigator and a chaplain who serves with FCPO, says compassion has been critical to his work too. After professing faith in Christ nearly 12 years into his career, Williams says his empathy level “went through the roof.” He realized: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

That doesn’t mean he went soft on criminals, Williams said, but he began to “see every call as an opportunity to minister.” His attitude helped form better relationships with the community, and sometimes it yielded better cooperation from offenders. He found compassion and justice didn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Police officers who aren’t Christians see intentional relationships with citizens as critical to their work, too, especially during a moment when tensions are high and police morale is low.

“We’re not perfect,” says Williams. “But day in and day out, we do a job that no one else can do.”

Police protection

If police officers ask how to best serve their communities and protect citizens, there’s a flip-side question: How can citizens best relate to police and respect their authority?

Michael Langston of Columbia International University (CIU) offers a suggestion: Support your local chaplains.

Langston, a retired police and military chaplain, directs the chaplaincy program at CIU, a Christian university in Columbia, S.C., and says chaplains can provide a helpful link between local police forces and local churches. The connection may be simple: Reach out to a police chaplain to learn more about the local force and to extend help to officers in times of crisis. “Chaplains have unique access to workplaces that pastors just don’t have,” says Langston.

Though many chaplains aren’t Christians, Langston says CIU trains evangelicals to bring the gospel to police officers traumatized by dangerous and stressful work. Often that means simply being available—in the squad car, at difficult crime scenes, at the station, in the middle of the night.

Langston tells students: “If you pour into their lives by being present, you will have the opportunity to speak into the holy places of their lives when they ask for it.”

M.C. Williams, the chaplain from Colorado, says churches could also consider other simple ways to serve officers: Invite them to church for a meal, deliver food to the station, pray for them. “I believe the average Christian American loves his police officers,” he says. “But the average church could do more to ask: How are we loving our officers, and how are we making them feel welcome?”—J.D.

Reporting by Emily Belz in Camden, N.J., and Daniel James Devine, in Gary, Ind.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily reports for WORLD Magazine from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

Emily Belz

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

Emily Belz

Daniel James Devine

Daniel is managing editor of WORLD Magazine and lives in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.