Camden County Officer Tyrrell Bagby is headed to his usual beat, but on the way he sees a man stumbling, about to walk off the curb and into a busy intersection near City Hall. Officer Bagby leans out the window and tells the man the train is coming and that he could be hurt “sitting in the middle of the street.”
The man looks up, shocked. He was looking at his phone, he tells the officer.
"Do me a favor and stand on the sidewalk," Bagby tells him. Bagby says he thinks the man came from the methadone clinic, a block or so away. He says he didn’t want to scare or startle the man — he just wanted the man to be safe.
Bagby called the man "Boss" as he approached and kept his tone light. He says he knows what people feel like when a cop pulls up to them.
"You don’t know what’s gonna happen."
This kind of empathy, imagining what it’s like to be the other guy, builds trust. It is the kind of mindset that’s at the heart of community policing. And the Camden force wants all its officers to have this mindset when they patrol.
It wasn’t always this way
Camden has gone through a lot of change in the past few years.
It used to be one of the few cities in the country to have more murders per capita than Baltimore. But in the last few years, the homicide rate has been cut almost in half. Violent crime is down 24%.
In May of 2015, President Obama traveled to Camden, to praise the police force. He said he was there to “hold [Camden] up as a symbol of promise to the nation.” And he noted that the Camden force has built a foundation for community policing.
“To be an officer takes a special kind of courage,” Obama said. “And when you match courage with compassion, with care and understanding like we’ve seen here in Camden - some really outstanding things can happen.”
He said Camden is still a work in progress, but the city has made real progress in just two years.
So, what did it take to bring community policing to Camden? And how did it become a model of this old-fashioned policing strategy that emphasizes understanding and relationship building?
In May 2013, New Jersey officials disbanded Camden’s police force. For years, there weren’t enough cops to patrol the streets in Camden. And they were getting paid an average of $180,000. All the officers were fired. They could reapply for their jobs — 30 percent came back — and unionized, but with drastically reduced salaries, mainly due to cuts in overtime and fringe benefits.
“There were tough times,” says Terrance Gainer, a security specialist for the Department of Justice and an informal consultant to Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson during the transition.
The new Camden cops were still making higher than average salaries for police officers nationwide. Even so, Gainer says, it was very rough for morale.
“There were a lot of unhappy people and families. On the same token, there were a lot of dedicated officers in that department who wanted to see it change and get better.”
The new police department could hire almost twice as many cops with the money saved. Chief Thomson was an advocate for community policing - meaning foot patrols, community forums, neighborhood outreach. With the overhaul, he had a clean slate to beef up those programs.
The technology that made Camden’s community policing easier to pull off
While all this was taking place, the police department brought in brand new shiny technology. In fact, one person called the new police department both "high touch" and "high tech".
The Camden County Police Department - the name of the new Camden force - built a Real Time Crime Center and hired civilians as crime analysts, thus saving more money. "It allows us to get more officers out on the streets," says Orlando Cuevas, assistant chief of the department.
There’s a secure room at police headquarters that Cuevas calls the department’s “central nervous system.” It’s packed with 21st century crime detection tools; interactive maps, blinking dashboards and screen after screen. Some are computer screens and some are TV screens, broadcasting images in real time from cameras fixed to telephone poles all around the city.
The cameras come through the Real Time Crime Center and the crime analysts can tilt, zoom and pan to have 360-degree visibility.
“This is how we administer all the operations throughout the day,” Cuevas says. “[The crime analysts] run the entire operation - investigative, field operations uniform operations - they’re like an extra set of eyes for our officers on the street.”
Cuevas shows several tools - one is called "the shotspotter" which detects gunfire and locates it on the map - no need to rely on people calling in to report where they think the gunshots came from. This device is expected to be in Baltimore in the 2017 fiscal year, according to the Baltimore Police Department.
Then there’s the virtual neighborhood watch program called ICAN. Camden residents can log into the system and see what the police cameras are seeing. They can also communicate with the analysts in the Real Time Crime Center.
“It allows the analysts to create a back and forth relationship, so people feel that they know exactly what’s happening in their neighborhood,” Cuevas says. “And they can become a part of that partnership that can address problems in their neighborhoods.”
All this technology cost millions of dollars. The department paid for it through grants, capital expenditures, and money awarded from the U.S. Department of Justice.
For many criminal justice experts, the combination of community policing and high tech crime fighting is responsible for Camden’s drop in violent crime. Police response time has gone from sixty minutes to four and half minutes.
Can any of the lessons learned in Camden apply to Baltimore?
First of all, Camden is much smaller than Baltimore. The population there is 77,000. Baltimore is 620,000. And New Jersey funds a large portion of the Camden Police budget.
In Baltimore, the state pays a little more than 1% of the police budget, according to budget officials at city hall. And the budget for the Baltimore Police Department for fiscal year 2017 is $451 million.
The average salary for a Baltimore cop is about $70,000 - and that’s not the state’s highest salary for a cop.
At the same time, Baltimore’s police union has been openly hostile to reform efforts. It’s been fighting a running battle with State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby over the prosecution of officers involved in the Freddie Gray case and pushed back against attempts to install community policing methods — like having civilians sit on internal police trial boards. And they are suing the department for releasing an officer’s personnel records to the civilian review board.
And that makes the outlook bleak for Camden style reform in Baltimore.
This special series is supported by grants from the Bendit Family Foundation, Sig and Barbara Shapiro, The Zanvyl and Isabelle Krieger Fund, and Open Society Institute-Baltimore.