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Ethics & Religion
Column #2026
June 11, 2020
Camden Reforms Police
By Mike McManus

Protests about the excessive use of force by police are not new. In 2015 demonstrators marched in Chicago, turned chaotic in Baltimore and occupied an area outside a Minneapolis police station for weeks. In Ferguson, MO after the killing by police of a black teenager, protestors took to the streets.

With what result? Nothing.

The Washington Post began tallying how many people were shot and killed by police. There were nearly 1,000 killed in 2015. With the issue flaring in city after city, some police promised reforms. However, the next year police nationwide shot and killed nearly another 1,000 people. About the same number were killed by police in 2017, and in each subsequent year after that.

The Post estimated police killed a total of 5,400 people from 2015-2019.

For weeks, thousands of people have demonstrated against police violence in dozens of American cities sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Fortunately, it was caught on video, with the police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, as Floyd cried out, "I can't breathe."

However, one small city - Camden, N.J. with 74,000 residents across the Delaware River from Philadelphia - has demonstrated that reform is possible and enormously beneficial. During a recent march on May 30, police left riot gear at home and brought in an ice cream truck. That Camden was able to demonstrate peacefully in a city that is one of America's poorest and once one of the nation's most dangerous - is a heartening achievement.

Fully 90% of the city's population is African-American and 30% live under the poverty line. Yet Camden's homicides have fallen from 67 in 2012 to only 25 in 2019. It was the lowest murder rate that the town had experienced since 1987.

Add to that the fact that local police have accomplished so much with a noted drop in the use of lethal force by police. Instead, the town recently saw the Chief of Police marching hand-in-hand with protesters - and it is easy to see why people across the country are quick to want to replicate it.

How did Camden achieve these remarkable results?

It was somewhat accidental. In 2012, with the highest numbers of murders ever, the city sought to put more cops on the street. Budgetary constraints made that impossible.

Therefore, Camden's mayor and city council dissolved the city's police department - and signed an agreement with the county to merge its own police force with the city's. That created a county/city police force instead. The new police force is double the size of the old one. Interactions between citizens and the police grew.

That move let the city shrink costs by ridding itself of unionized police that cost $182,168 per officer on average with benefits in favor of hiring back holdovers and new recruits as non-unionized county employees at $99,605 per officer.

That major change gave the city more resources that were shifted to other community building initiatives in the following years. Education reform and workplace development programs boosted the local economy. It also made possible an $8 million program to remove blighted and abandoned property - helping eliminate areas once used by drug dealers.

The police chief also instituted more community policing reforms. The department adopted an 18-page use of force policy in 2019, developed with New York University's Policing Project. The rules emphasize that de-escalation has to come first. Deadly force such as a choke hold or firing a gun can only be used in certain situations, once every other tactic has been exhausted. "It requires that force be reasonable and necessary, but that is if it is proportionate," says Farhang Haydart, executive director of the Policing Project. "Most important, they are requirements. They are not suggestions."

Training exercises on de-escalation became the norm and officers were outfitted with body cameras in 2019. Police are far less likely to use excessive or lethal force when their actions are captured on video.

The police teamed up with the ACLU and New York University's Policing Project to codify the rules it had been operating with, including mandating that force only be used as a last resort and that other officers intervene to stop any unnecessary use of force.

Camden is an inspiring model for how to reform the police, increase the safety of residents and save taxpayer dollars - all at the same time!


Copyright (c) 2020 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to www.ethicsandreligion.comm. Hit Search for any topic.


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