Rethinking police: How Camden, NJ, reimagined its force

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In this June 11, 2020, photo Lourdes Sherby, center, with Guadalupe Family Services, hands diapers to Louisa Peralta in Camden, N.J. I think were received a lot better than we used to be, said Sgt. Dekel Levy, 41, as he helped hand out diapers to a steady stream of young mothers Thursday afternoon at Guadalupe Family Service. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

CAMDEN, N.J. – To Scott Thomson, changing the culture of policing in America is a relatively simple process.

It’s just not an easy one.

Thomson led a tumultuous police department makeover in Camden, New Jersey — a poor city of mostly brown and black residents just across the river from Philadelphia — in 2013.

After state officials disbanded the old department and started anew, Thomson transformed policing in Camden from the law-and-order, lock-‘em-up approach of the 1990s to a holistic, do-no-harm philosophy that’s put the long-maligned city in the spotlight during the national reckoning over race and police brutality.

While police elsewhere clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters outraged by the latest death of a black man detained by police, Camden officers marched calmly with residents and activists.

“Our actions can accelerate situations. What we should be trying to do is de-escalate them,” said Thomson, a past president of the Police Executive Research Forum who retired from the Camden job last year. “The last thing we want is for the temperature to rise, and for situations to go from bad to worse because of our failed tactics.”

But if the recent protest was peaceful, the county takeover of the Camden Police Department was contentious. More than 300 officers lost their jobs. Only half joined the new force.

Along with the switch to community policing came a reliance on high-tech, city-wide surveillance, more patrols, and younger, cheaper, less diverse officers who often aren’t from Camden. Their average age today is 26.