As I talked to Capt. James on the phone, he fielded constant interruptions from people in the community as he drove around answering calls after a big storm. He’s from Camden and has been with the police force for 28 years.
James is a trained negotiator: He recently took the lead in a 15-hour standoff, talking down an emotionally disturbed man with two knives who had barricaded himself in house. Eventually, the man came out without serious injuries to anyone, and police took him to a hospital for treatment. James notes that some police departments wouldn’t have waited that long for negotiations to play out.
“All I can say is how we do things,” said James. “I would never disparage another police department for how they respond to situations I’m not at. There are certain situations I can look at and say, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to do that.’ The Floyd incident—no one trains that way.”
Camden’s use of force policy, which Thomson crafted in 2013 and has revised over the years, has as its foundation “sanctity of life.” It has the unusual blessing of both the police union and the state American Civil Liberties Union.
“Use of force should never be considered routine,” the policy reads. “In exercising this authority, officers must respect the sanctity of all human life, act in all possible respects to preserve human life, do everything possible to avoid unnecessary uses of force, and minimize the force that is used, while still protecting themselves and the public.”
De-escalation is a “core value,” so Camden officers train in it over and over: “That’s the key,” said James. “They come into situations, they can rely on their training.”
The policy also states that officers shouldn’t position those under their control in a way that could obstruct breathing, and that officers “should not sit, kneel, or stand on a person’s chest or back, and whenever feasible should not force the person to lie on his or her stomach.”
The use-of-force policy has another unusual core principle: that officers have a “duty to prevent and stop illegal and inappropriate uses of force by other officers.” The policy says officers seeing inappropriate uses of force have a duty to “interrupt the flow of events.”
Major police departments elsewhere are starting to adopt some of these use-of-force standards in response to the Floyd protests. On June 3, the Los Angeles Police Commission announced it plans to require officers to intervene when they see misconduct from fellow officers. The San Diego Police Department announced it will no longer use chokeholds.
Partnership with local ministries has been a core part of Camden’s revised approach. Top brass from the police, usually including Chief Joseph Wysocki, have had weekly meetings with dozens of leaders from local ministries to hear what’s going on in neighborhoods, respond to concerns, and talk about hot spots in the city.
When the COVID-19 outbreak began, the police moved those weekly meetings to Zoom, which has allowed more people to attend. Brenda Antinore leads a ministry to women suffering from addiction and working in prostitution in Camden: She and her husband Bill also run other street-based ministries under the umbrella organization Seeds of Hope (a 2014 winner of a WORLD Hope Award for Effective Compassion). Capt. James and Chief Wysocki recently visited the Antinores’ house in South Camden, where women in addiction recovery stay, to check whether they had enough personal protective equipment since they work on the street.
“If there wasn’t that open dialogue we would be guessing, and a lot of times it would be wrong,” said James. “We want to be the police department that the community needs.”
It’s hard going in a tough city with serious drug and crime problems. Parts of Camden had begun to recover after decades of post-industrial decline, but COVID-19 and the attempt to stop it have led to increased addiction, homelessness, and unemployment, Antinore said it is “as much if not more desperate out here than it’s ever been.” More tents have popped up Camden streets.
The Antinores and their team of volunteers have been cooking and boxing up breakfasts for hundreds. The other day one woman they help screamed for them to help an overdosing teenager: They were able to do so, using Narcan. “We’re really grateful to God that He’s allowed us to stay present,” Brenda Antinore said.
The Antinores and other ministry leaders have for years regularly met outside city hall to pray for the police, the mayor, and other community leaders, a gathering that is not advertised or public. Recently, Antinore overheard a woman on the phone outside the other day, talking to a friend in Philadelphia about the looting over there. “She goes, ‘Why are you doing all that, this is what we do over here,’” said Antinore. “It was good to hear that.”
Editor’s Note: WORLD has updated this story to correct a quotation from Camden Mayor Frank Moran.