Opinion: Camden, New Jersey’s Police Reform Was Not Perfect

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Many who have called for defunding the police have cited the city of Camden, NJ as an example of a success story. After disbanding its police force in 2013, crimes in the city dropped from 5,210 to 3,267 in 2019, a decrease of 37%. But the story behind defunding the police in Camden, NJ is a lot more complicated.

In the years after World War II, many manufacturing companies left Camden. This, combined with suburbanization and the generally richer whites moving away, left behind a city highly dependent on state aid. Then, the Great Recession hit, which caused New Jersey governor Chris Christie to cut back on aid. As a result, Camden cut its budget by more than 20% in 2010, which forced the city to lay off half of their police force. In addition, the city had high levels of corruption and distrust, with two mayors being charged with corruption in just 3 years, from 1997 to 2000, and five officers being charged with planting evidence.

With a poor economy made worse by the Great Recession and about half of the police force laid off, crimes greatly increased, growing from 5,559 total crimes in 2010 to 6,749 in 2011. Then, the city disbanded their original police force and replaced it with non-unionized county police, cutting pay and benefits by almost half and replacing the old police force with a much larger, whiter, and more suburban force. The ethnic makeup mattered because Camden is 41% Black and 45.5% Hispanic, and these residents thought that the new police force wouldn’t treat them well. They were right—the new county police adopted broken windows policing, a tactic promoted by Rudy Giuliani in his days as the New York mayor where residents got ticketed for very small offenses. For example, summonses for riding a bicycle without a bell or light rose from three to 339 just one year after police implemented their new policing style. In addition, the new police force installed numerous surveillance tools, including license plate scanners on new police cruisers, 121 high-definition cameras, and a huge mobile crane. Due to actions like those, broken windows policing increased tensions between the police and the community, and residents felt that they were all being treated like criminals.

While crimes fell in Camden in the early stages of the implementation of the county police force, there was a general downward trend across all of New Jersey, which could be attributed to an economy recovering from the Great Recession. In addition, activists attempted to replace broken windows policing with a less violent model. The actions of activists caused reforms in the police force, such as requiring officers to stop other officers’ inappropriate uses of force, and those reforms were what led to a 95% drop in excessive-force complaints. Ultimately, activists were the ones who made the difference, not replacing the police force with another police force.

The big takeaway from Camden is that activists who want police officers to use less force should push for force-reduction policies, not try to dismantle and rebuild a police force. Although some police forces could use a small decrease in funding, sharply reducing their budget would not necessarily have positive effects on the community. Proponents of defunding the police should reconsider using Camden in their arguments, since removing the police force was detrimental for the civil rights of the residents of Camden until community activists took action.

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