This commentary was originally published by NJ Spotlight, a nonprofit news website in New Jersey.
At first, it was exciting to see my photographs of Camden, New Jersey, police officers marching with protesters published all over the world.
The images show an oft-maligned city responding with unity and peace to the killing of George Floyd. They give people hope.
But the most recent media narrative — that in 2013, the Camden City Police department was dissolved in order to root out corruption, and from its ashes came a friendly, county-run force that sets a national model for community policing — is a bridge too far. It’s important to get the history right, because amid calls for defunding police departments, what happened here shows that this is a more complex issue than people realize.
It’s true that Camden is much safer these days. In recent years, the force has upped the hiring of minority officers, taught officers de-escalation tactics, worked more closely with social service agencies, and hosted neighborhood events to get to know the community on a regular basis.
The political calculation
But contrary to many of the reports that were published with my photographs in recent weeks, the Camden County Police Department was not born out of an altruistic desire to get rid of corrupt cops. It was created by South Jersey politicians, with the support of then-Gov. Chris Christie, to break the police officers union with contracts they considered burdensome, thereby cutting costs.
The problem was that to make that happen, they laid off nearly half the police force in January 2011. I stood in the street on that bitter, cold morning watching tearful officers place their boots on the icy sidewalk in protest.
The most generous view of that — and the explosion of crime that followed — would be that officials didn’t realize what would happen. Many of us, though, believed it was perhaps the most cynical political decision we’d ever witnessed, an intentional effort to drive up the crime rate to justify a new county department.
A field of crosses for murder victims
The death toll was so horrific that activists created a field of crosses in front of Camden’s City Hall, planting a new one for each of the nearly 70 murder victims in 2012. (There were 37 murders in Camden in 2010, 52 in 2011.) I was a regular visitor to the field; sometimes the heartbreaking pictures I took there went unpublished because editors didn’t want to depress readers.
City lawmakers hated the makeshift graveyard, and feared it discouraged visitors. Meanwhile, Matt Taibbi reported in Rolling Stone that enterprising Camdenites made T-shirts celebrating the transfer of power from law enforcement to the street, and that absenteeism among the cops who remained on the skeletal force was so high that there were times in 2011 and 2012 when the city was patrolled by as few as 12 officers.
Camden was proclaimed a war zone, and the stage was set to usher in the new county department that city leaders wanted. Nobody gave Camden residents a choice, and because a voter petition drive to halt the creation of a county police force was ignored, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 2015 that the disbanding and reorganization was illegal.
By then, of course, it was too late.
The Camden County Police Department was hardly an immediate success. City residents, many of whom loved then-President Barack Obama, couldn’t fathom why he came to Camden in 2015 to congratulate its police force.
I couldn’t either. The new department had not only had the highest number of excessive-force complaints in the state but also the highest turnover. Young officers, mostly white, came from all over the state to train in Camden, but so many of them fled the dangerous city so quickly that Camden asked for refunds from the municipalities where they wound up for the cost of that training.
For a time, the new force embraced the since-discredited “broken windows” theory of policing, which holds that showing zero tolerance for minor crimes can fend off larger problems. In a poor city like Camden, getting a ticket for not having a bell on a bicycle felt like harassment.
A few months after Obama showed up, Camden resident Quinzelle Bethea spent Thanksgiving in a jail cell, charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and obstruction after being beaten by a 27-year-old cop named Douglas Dickinson for no real reason. As he was being transported to jail, Bethea reported that other officers, who knew that cop’s propensity for violence, were apologizing. It was a hopeful sign that then-Police Chief Scott Thomson expressed gratitude to community members and other officers who came forward to share their concerns. Charges were dropped against Bethea, who sued in federal court, and Dickinson eventually pleaded guilty to assault.
No fairy tale
One night around that time, I was pulled over in Camden with an African-American man in my passenger seat. “I wasn’t speeding, was I?” I asked the Camden County officer, who was white like me.
“No,” he said, looking at me and at my friend. “You were actually going kind of slow. Are you all right?” The encounter confused me, but my passenger got it loud and clear, and had of course experienced far worse insults than that.
While I applaud what hard-won progress the Camden County Police Department has made and hope for continued improvement, there is no denying that its origin was drenched in the blood of murder victims, that things got worse before they got better, and that easy fixes are fairy tales.
I was there. And I have the pictures to prove it.
April Saul is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist whose lifelong mission has been to help people understand each other better. She earned a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota and spent over three decades on the staff of the Philadelphia Inquirer, leaving there in 2014 to cover Camden for various media and her Facebook page, Camden, NJ: A Spirit Invincible.
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