This editorial appeared in the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis.
The death of George Floyd while in police custody has prompted calls to defund or dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department and other law enforcement agencies around the nation. As a result, Camden, N.J., has been held up as a model for doing just that. Seven years ago, that city abolished its police department and started over.
Since then, statistics from the city of 74,000 indicate some success. Excessive use-of-force rates plummeted, and homicides and other violent crimes decreased in a municipality that was once dubbed the most dangerous city in the state. Yet the New Jersey city’s reforms cannot simply be superimposed on Minneapolis. For starters, the political circumstances in Camden a decade ago must be understood.
In the early 2010s, Camden was a city in deep financial trouble and was facing laying off about half of its 300-plus officers. The department had a reputation for use of discriminatory policing in a city that was more than 90% black and Hispanic. Police were often accused of corruption and of using excessive force.
In May 2013, the Camden City Council voted to eliminate its police department and establish a new one under county control with the blessing and funding from the state. The remaining city cops were all laid off and had to reapply to work for the county, under far less generous, nonunion contracts. The force was increased to nearly 400 officers.
The Camden police reforms remain politically divisive. That’s in part because union contracts were thrown out, leaving many on the force earning a lower salary with fewer benefits. Eventually, collective bargaining returned with a contract that allowed the chief and his managers more disciplinary and termination power.
It’s also critical to note that some members of the Camden community fought the changes and filed a lawsuit to save the department. The case ultimately ended up in front of the state Supreme Court, which ruled 6-0 in favor of the residents in 2015. But at that point it was too late: The Camden County Police Department had been established, and the old force was gone.
From 2012 to 2018, Camden experienced a 23% drop in violent crime and a 48% drop in nonviolent crime, although many factors likely played a role. Crime rates dropped in most New Jersey cities during that same period.
Officers on the reinvented Camden force say they see their jobs in a new way, and there’s greater emphasis on community relations and de-escalation. Beat cops are more apt to check in with individuals and businesses even when they are not responding to calls for service. Officers marched with protesters after Floyd’s death.
Camden increased the number of cops on the streets while pushing through a number of now-progressive police reforms that changed the culture of the force. And leaders mustered the political will to get contractual changes for needed accountability.
Although Camden is not a perfect model for Minneapolis, there are lessons to be learned from the New Jersey experiment.