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Camden’s new day

A crime turnaround in a New Jersey city shows how a reformed police department can contribute to community flourishing

Camden’s new day

In downtown Camden, Officer Tyrrell Bagby chats with longtime resident Odessa Morton. (Corey Perrine/Genesis Photos)

Homes on “Heroin Highway” in North Camden now have potted plants outside and laughing teenagers hanging out on a porch after sunset. Police officers walk down a quiet block once controlled by drug dealers.

At the peak of violence six years ago on this block, four officers attempted to arrest a suspected drug dealer, only to have a crowd of more than 100 attack them and free the suspect.

Today, the drug set is gone, and a teacher leads a class of little kids down the street holding a rope. Little League season is starting soon at a new, nearby baseball field, which a few years ago was a needle-littered haven for drug users.

Camden, N.J., infamous for its violent crime and drug trade, has seen a remarkable turnaround driven by a reformed police force. In 2012, violence was at its peak: 67 murders in the city of 77,000. That year Chicago grabbed headlines as the U.S. city with the most murders. But measured by population, Camden’s murder rate was almost five times that of Chicago’s.

Five years later, the crime statistics from 2017 showed homicides at a 30-year low. Homicides have dropped 66 percent from the 2012 peak. Camden’s homicides are a small sample size, so large percentage swings aren’t unusual—but “Part 1” crimes like robbery and assault are at their lowest levels since Camden officials started keeping statistics in 1969. From 2012 to 2017, Camden achieved a 26 percent drop in violent crime.

One key to Camden’s turnaround: City, county, and state leaders decided in 2012 to dissolve and reform the police department, a radical and politically risky move. Another key: City leaders—the police chief, the mayor, and City Council—have taken a holistic approach to the city’s problems, turning to local churches and nonprofits as allies.

In the community, ministry workers and pastors I spoke to say they’re seeing change both on the streets and in the hearts of the people they serve.

“We’re seeing what happens with right policing,” said Ernest Grant II, lead pastor of Epiphany Camden.

HOW DID THIS TURNAROUND HAPPEN? It seemingly began with a risky political maneuver. In 2012 the city, in conjunction with the state and county, decided to dissolve the police force entirely. Officials created a new, nonunion force from scratch, where training had a new emphasis on de-escalation tactics and community policing.

In the process, local leaders made enemies of the police union, a situation no politician wants to be in. “[The police union] did not want to be a part of the process,” said county executive Lou Cappelli, a Democrat who led the effort to reorganize the department under county control. “They were putting their interest ahead of the residents.”

Corey Perrine/Genesis Photos

Pastor Ernest Grant (Corey Perrine/Genesis Photos)

The Camden City Council president at the time, Frank Moran (now the mayor of Camden), recalled that his chambers were filled with protesters, and people called him a union buster. 

But Moran, who grew up in Camden, said he has no regrets about the department reorganization. The union’s pay scale and contract arrangements meant the city couldn’t afford more than a dozen officers patrolling the city most nights. Under budget pressure, city employees were taking furloughs, but “the police union refused to give anything.”

“It was a tough time, because here we were dissolving the same folks that we needed to protect us,” said Moran, also a Democrat. The city and county had backing and funding for the effort from Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

Police Chief Scott Thomson, who had spent his career with the police in Camden, launched the new Camden County Police Department with reforms. The department hired back about half of the previous force, with a new emphasis on community relationships.

Camden police officers recall feeling in the old days like an occupying military force in a city controlled by drug dealers. After the reorganization, officers began giving their cell phone numbers to residents, meeting with neighborhood pastors and other community leaders, and working with local ministries serving prostitutes or gang-bound teenagers. The department’s new manual for use-of-force training emphasized “the sanctity of life” and the importance of a “moral compass.”

Mel Evans/AP

Scott Thomson is sworn in as chief of the new Camden County Police Department by Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. (left) in 2013. (Mel Evans/AP)

On a recent March morning, Officers Tyrrell Bagby and Michael Agron—both Camden natives—set out on street patrol. Bagby, part of the force since 2013, said he has to replace his boots every year because the officers walk the streets so much. In a city where less than half of high schoolers graduate, he not only graduated but went on to gain admission to Yale Medical School. He decided that he wanted to be a police officer in his hometown instead, to be part of the city turnaround.

Bagby and Agron greet every person they see on the street. The two said they never just sit in their squad car running speed traps. But if they do stop someone, they are trained to explain why, rather than opening with a demand to hand over a driver’s license or asking, “Do you know why I stopped you?” That approach is meant to help build trust. Bagby rattles off his script: “Hi, I’m Officer Bagby with the Camden County Police Department, I stopped you for speeding.”

Later as Bagby drove through North Camden in his patrol car, he neared a woman who was walking down the middle of the street. He slowed down and explained that this woman had been attacked by dogs as a child and was mentally ill. He said the officers know about her and let her be. He navigated around her.

The community policing here is even more radical than knowing residents and talking to them on the street. Last fall a man fleeing arrest shot a Camden officer in the leg at point-blank range, an incident captured on bodycam video. Then—according to the police—the suspect tried to shoot the officer in the head, but the gun jammed. The wounded officer was able to arrest the suspect, who now faces attempted murder charges.

The 18-year-old suspect turned out not to be from Camden, a persistent problem here where outsiders cause havoc that community-police relationships can’t solve. But for the following week after the officer was shot, the police department held barbecues at the site of the shooting. The message was intended to show the neighborhood that the police weren’t going to retaliate. 

Corey Perrine/Genesis Photos

William Morales (left), CASA director Tim Gallagher (center), and Elvis Reyes talk in the kitchen at CASA. (Corey Perrine/Genesis Photos)

Grant, the Epiphany church pastor, lives with his wife and two children in South Camden, along with other church staff. The neighborhood is still rough, he says, but the attempted break-ins at his house have stopped. Grant, who is African-American, is concerned about the issue of police brutality and police shootings of minorities, but he adds, “I want to be safe! I want to call the police!”

He said Camden police now seem better trained on de-escalation, on avoiding implicit bias, and on getting services for the poor instead of locking them up. When he talks to officers, he doesn’t feel they’re “on alert,” but engaged in a real conversation.

Epiphany, a nondenominational church, focuses its ministry and outreach on four groups of people: the poor, the unborn, single mothers, and victims of violence. “Different layers” of change are happening in Camden, Grant says: “I’m seeing change on a heart level, from people who were addicted to crack and addicted to cocaine who are starting to walk on the right path, looking to take care of their kids. For me that’s focus No. 1.”

COOPERATION WITH LOCAL MINISTRIES has proven vital for Camden police, who hope to deter youth from crime and make their neighborhoods safer.

One recent evening in North Camden, Elvis Reyes, a college freshman who grew up in Camden, leaned on the ledge of a porch, looking out on the darkening street. The weather was springlike, and a half-dozen teenagers lingered outside with Reyes. “It does feel different,” he said. “It feels safe. But it’s still Camden.”

William Morales, a high-school senior who also grew up in North Camden, remembered how drug dealers would sell drugs here at 6:30 in the morning. The teenagers don’t remember seeing cops in their neighborhood very often.

Corey Perrine/Genesis Photos

Teens trickle in for the after-school program at CASA. (Corey Perrine/Genesis Photos)

“No one would stand on a corner now,” Morales said. 

The teens were at the house where CASA (Camden Adolescents Striving for Achievement) hosts an after-school program that gives teenagers a place to hang out, develop life skills, and find an alternative to gangs. It’s a project of a larger Catholic social work group, Guadalupe Family Services.

Chief Thomson describes the program as essential to helping with the “trauma” in the community, and police officers come and speak to the CASA teenagers on various occasions. Every student who has gone through the program in the last six years has graduated high school, and each who applied to college was accepted.

“Some people get discouraged by the fact that they came from here … you just get demoralized,” said Reyes. He still struggles with that demoralization, doubting that there will be a job for him here after graduation. “It’s a stereotype. … You’re applying for a spot. You’re from Camden, the other guy is from Cherry Hill. ‘We’re going to go with the Cherry Hill guy.’”

With that in mind, one of the most remarkable Camden renaissance numbers comes from the U.S. Census: From 2015 to 2016 Camden’s poverty rate fell from 40 percent to 30 percent, and business has slowly returned to the city. Camden tied with Dallas in 2016 for the nation’s highest percentage increase in employment. City officials credit tax incentives for enticing companies into Camden.

Camden’s waterfront on the Delaware River has cranes showing the signs of development. A hotel is going up, the first in decades. A state prison used to sit on the waterfront, but state and local authorities agreed to demolish it and create a park. Cooper’s Poynt Waterfront Park opened last year.

Corey Perrine/Genesis Photos

Tyrrell Bagby in downtown Camden. (Corey Perrine/Genesis Photos)

DESPITE THE GOOD SIGNS, Camden still faces its challenges. The week I visited, the police department was in turmoil because an officer was caught on camera repeatedly punching a suspect. Lt. Kevin Lutz, who oversees training at the department, was visibly frustrated. The department had trained officers against this kind of behavior, and officers here wear body cameras.

Lutz was visiting roll calls at the different police substations to underscore that the behavior in the video was unacceptable—though an investigation of the full circumstances around the video is still ongoing.

Excessive force complaints against the police department have been dropping overall. From Lutz’s perspective, the most important thing the new department has done is to repeat training for officers over time. “We’re training everyone the same way,” said Lutz, to “shape the culture of the department.”

Camden doesn’t have all of its crime problems solved. South Camden is still struggling, and drugs remain a serious issue. Overdoses continue to increase, reflecting a national trend. One of the young prostitutes I interviewed on a previous trip had died.

Bill and Brenda Antinore serve prostitutes, prisoners, and the poor through their Camden ministry Seeds of Hope, a 2014 WORLD Hope Award regional winner (see “Street savvy,” Aug. 23, 2014). The Antinores know parts of the city are transforming, but they are sometimes overwhelmed by the endless need. In the couple’s South Camden home, half of a dining room plate rack is filled with memorial photos of ministry recipients who have died in the last few years.

The Antinores have a good relationship with Chief Thomson and local officers. A few days after I visited, there was a murder (the city’s fifth this year) around the corner from their home and ministry. Immediately a police officer they knew texted them about the murder and said he would keep them updated on the investigation.

“We hope we’re one of their best allies in the community,” said Brenda. “We’re doing what we’re called to do in God’s strength. Because you could just turn and leave. … But you have a nucleus of people in this city committed to praying—praying for the police, praying for the city. That’s how it’s going to happen.”

In May, city officials will host a carnival with residents to mark the five-year anniversary of the new police department. Pastor Grant, for one, is enthusiastic.

“[The police] have done an incredible job,” he said. “And that’s something we need to celebrate.”

Rowan University

Moran (Rowan University)

From lawn mower to mayor’s seat

Camden Mayor Frank Moran was in his early teens when he saw the exodus of industrial businesses like Campbell’s Soup from the city and the arrival of the crack epidemic.

“We became a ghost town,” he said.

Moran is one of seven children raised by a single mother. He started working as a laborer for the city after high school, cutting grass in all the parks.

Rising in the ranks at the parks department, he became part of the City Council, then president of the City Council, and finally—in January—the mayor. His priority, he says, is to continue the city’s turnaround and to make sure that the renaissance reaches all Camdenites, not just waterfront developers.

Moran says he became a “born-again Christian” about 15 years ago, when his mother, part of a local Assemblies of God church, passed away. He joined the church as a fiery member, going on mission trips and sharing about his faith at events in Camden.

He counts the Antinores as friends and says the inclusion of churches and nonprofits in the city’s renaissance is essential.

Has he gotten pushback about those partnerships?

“Actually sometimes we’ve got to push back, because now every ministry that wants to do something comes to the mayor’s office and says, ‘God gave me a vision,’” he laughed. “If God gave you the call, He’s going to back you up some way. I ain’t got the money!” —E.B.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.


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    Posted: Wed, 04/18/2018 04:42 pm

    Posting this for Isaac

    Posted: Mon, 06/08/2020 07:47 am

    Great article. My wife grew up near Camden and we ministered nearby by and supported a ministry there. Thanks for reporting on good news. :)

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Tue, 06/09/2020 04:36 pm

    Thank you for the encouragement and hope presented in this article.  People with compassionate vision can make a difference.  I see a strong thread of faith in Christ in the events that unfolded in Camden.  What an example for other precincts to follow.  It isn't perfect but it has great foundations.