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Ingle: Camden can be a model for community policing

Long before Ferguson, Missouri, burst into our lives with its ugly profile of a community out of sync with the cops who drove around in vehicles that looked like they were mounting an invasion, creating an air of distrust, Camden suffered the same resident distrust.

There was a time when the violent crime rate in Camden was so high Gov. Christie Whitman sent in state troopers to bolster law enforcement. Crime went down but it lasted only as long as the troopers were doing the policing.

A study of the police force found too many Camden cops sitting on their butts at desks, especially at night when crime ruled. Too many called in sick, too.

Kids couldn’t play on the neighborhood streets and had to hunker down in their homes as bullets whizzed over their heads. It was more like a war zone than a once prosperous city that gave us Campbell’s Soup and color TV.

In 2012, there were 44 murders. In 2013, there were 35. That was down to 22 as of Friday. Too high still, but headed in the right direction.

Camden did this by doing the unthinkable — eliminating the city police force and replacing it in May 2013, with a force run by the county. It numbers 400, up from 250 in Camden’s old force, but it doesn’t cost citizens more because the state provides funding.

It was not without controversy. The union representing Camden’s old force was opposed, calling it union-busting and politically motivated. They compared themselves to their skill and training and experience of the well-respected emergency room physicians at Cooper University Hospital. It’s the same kind of claptrap one hears when towns want to combine police forces. It’s based on fear-mongering but is about money and benefits. The average cost of a cop was $180,000 in the old department; the officers on the new force cost about half that, the county said.

Chief Scott Thomson, who also was chief of the former police department, understands community policing is more successful than riding in on a vehicle built for war and firing tear gas and rubber bullets. “Our cops know,” he told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “the tools that government gives us, our pistol and our handcuffs” are to be used as a last resort. On a scale of 1 to 10, he said, community support has gone from a 2 to an 8. He holds a master’s in education from Seton Hall and a bachelor’s in sociology from Rutgers.

Thomson had an advantage in starting from scratch. “We had the luxury when we stood up the organization of being able to create culture rather than having the challenge of changing culture. The community was inclusive of what we were doing from day one. We did focus groups with people in the neighborhoods. … We asked them the traits and the characteristics they wanted to see in their officers. We are guardian figures in our neighborhoods and our job is to facilitate, convene and to help people to police their neighborhoods.”

Thomson sees cameras on cops as the future of policing. “I am a strong proponent of auditing our officers … We probably are the form of government that should be under the most scrutiny and knowing that we’re going to be second-guessed any time there is a use of force or type of interaction that goes bad, why not have it to be able to know what happened exactly?”

The force is diverse, speaking 11 languages. Representation of minorities on the command staff is double what it was in the old days. “Two out of every three commanders are reflective of the community,” Thomson said. “We’re not waving the flag of victory. This is progress, not success.”

Will it work elsewhere in New Jersey, say, Trenton? Some, including Gov. Chris Christie, have expressed an interest in expanding the model. Heck, why stop in New Jersey? As Ferguson shows, there are plenty of departments across the land that could use a makeover, especially when it comes to attitude toward the community.

Bob Ingle is senior political columnist for the State House Bureau. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter @bobingle99.