Tune in tonight at 9 p.m. ET
Update July 1, 2014: In Camden, N.J., violent crime is down 9 percent over the same period last year, a promising sign for one of the country’s most radical experiments in law enforcement. In a controversial move last May, Camden dissolved its police force, breaking the union and replacing it with a cheaper regional force. Tonight, Adam May examines the “Camden model” and its impact on one of America’s most dangerous cities.
New Jersey is the nation’s second-wealthiest state, with a median household income of $70,000, according to the latest Census figures. But inside its borders lies the country’s poorest city, besieged by drugs, shootings and corruption. In 2010, Nation magazine called it “the city of ruins.” Last year it claimed another title: the most dangerous city in America.
But the last few months have brought some much-needed good news to the Garden State’s darkest corner. Crime has dropped, and in August, Gov. Chris Christie even held up Camden as “a model.”
Correspondent Adam May visited Camden and spoke to residents and police to better understand one of the most radical experiments in law enforcement in recent American history.
Earlier this year, every single Camden police officer was laid off. The entire force was dissolved, and in its place the city instituted a larger, cheaper regional police department. Some of the veteran officers were rehired, but most of the new staff were new recruits.
The radical move came out of desperation. Officials said generous union contracts left them unable to afford enough officers, forcing them to essentially cede the streets to crime. On night shifts, there were barely a dozen police officers patrolling the entire city. They stopped responding to minor thefts and car wrecks that involved no injuries.
“We had 30 percent absentee rate on any given day. It was extremely difficult,” Police Chief Scott Thomson told “America Tonight.” “I mean, for the cop that did come to work, they were generally working a 16-hour day … It just wasn’t a sustainable position.”
Camden is already running on a heavy deficit. In the 2013 fiscal year, the city had an operating budget of $151 million, but collected just $39 million in taxes.
So Camden made the bold decision to contract its police operations to Camden County, trading in its 270 or so city officers for a 400-strong force at roughly the same cost — by slashing benefits. Critics called it union-busting, but still reeling from a record-breaking year for homicides, the staunchly Democratic City Council gave it the green light.
The new arrangement began May 1 with about 240 officers, and city and county officials are hailing it as an early success. While gun crime spiked in New Jersey’s capital, Trenton, this summer, Camden saw a 22 percent drop in homicides in May through September compared with the same period last year. Shootings are down 11 percent.
Concentrated foot patrols are doing sweeps of high-crime neighborhoods, which is something residents haven’t seen in years. This is backed up by a high-tech surveillance system, and Thomson demonstrated to “America Tonight” how hundreds of closed-circuit cameras now help them descend on crime scenes in a matter of seconds.
The policing is set to intensify, with 100 academy graduates joining the force in December, and a mandate to focus on what the police call quality-of-life offenses such as loitering and vandalism.
Some residents, however, chafe at the extra attention. “I don’t see much people on the corner, drug dealers and all that, so their presence was good,” says resident Latif Steele. “But after two weeks of me living in here, they’re just harassing people.”
But the early numbers are enough to excite the governor, an early advocate of Camden’s police overhaul. He recommended that Trenton, which slashed a third of its police force in 2011 under budget pressures, adopt a similar plan.
Trenton legislators have expressed uncertainty though about a scheme that hasn’t faced a long-term test, and will face virulent union opposition. Even in Camden County, none of the other 36 municipalities have yet chosen to follow the lead of the county seat.