What Memphis can learn from the war on crime in Camden, New Jersey

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Memphis is facing a lot of tough problems, including violent crime, poverty, a shrinking tax base, and unemployment.

One city facing similar challenges is becoming a model for turning things around in a dramatic fashion.

Richard Ransom recently went to Camden, New Jersey, to see what they're doing.

Two years ago, the city with the worst violent crime rate in the country traded in its police force and started over. There's already proof it's working -- murders and shootings cut in half, property crime down by almost a third, and police morale has never been better.

State, county and city leaders came up with a plan in which the Camden city police force was dismissed, and the county took over.

A huge investment was made in technology, including GPS units and dash cams in every squad car.

The biggest change was doubling the number of officers on the streets, not to arrest their way out of the problem, instead to form a partnership with a public that didn't trust its police.

The results?

  • The murder rate is down 56%.
  • Shootings are down by nearly as much 48%.
  • Property crime is down 30%.
  • Overall violent crime fell 22%.
  • The high school graduation rate is up 22%

Residents are thrilled with changes, "There's a lot more police on the streets, and that's why I think it's better.  And you've noticed it in your neighborhood?  In my neighborhood, yes."

Another person told us, "Camden has calmed down a lot since the police been patrolling everything. So has it been worth it? Whatever they did they need to keep doing it. Definitely."

"They feel safer, and that's the most important outcome of all of this. They feel safer. They've taken back their streets. They've taken back their parks. And they're able to live in their city just like any other residents in Camden County," one official said.

Sgt. Ralph Thornton was one of the 155 city officers hired by the new county police force.

Bicycle units, foot patrols, cops playing basketball with kids, free ice cream and more school outreach are all examples of this new department's new philosophy: citizens and cops shouldn't only interact when it's time to enforce the law.

"As a native of Camden, who grew up here and have been an officer for almost two decades what does it mean to drive through these streets now and see the changes you're seeing? I did it. I did it. I stayed. I i wanted to be able to say that in 25 years of police work, I made a change in the city I grew up in."

Camden's top cop will tell you the last thing any community needs is an occupying force.

Chief Scott Thomson said zero tolerance mentality makes zero common sense, "All that does is polarize. At best you'll get temporary lulls in crime, but you'll never build anything that can move forward and sustain a reduction in crime over the long haul."

Thomson is convinced the department's creed of "service over self" has not only improved department morale, but is also saving lives.

"Policing's a tough business, particularly in your more challenged neighborhoods because you're gonna see things that are going to test your metal. They're going to test your resolve, test your faith in yourself and mankind. But you can never lose sight of your solemn oath of office."

24 comments

    • Mad Memphian

      Sadly reading, writing and wearing pants are well above the intellectual possibilities of the average Memphrican.

  • JOE

    Great idea. Turn it over to the county, just like the school system. That leaves a mayor and city council over what, the firefighters and sanitation workers. This would prove with no argument, where the problem is.

    • Ric

      Actually, great idea. Looks like Memphis and Shelby County are going Metro the slow and painful way, anyone surprised? Just do it!!

  • Daniel

    Madmemphian, why say Memphfrican. Come on now. I am not here to judge, just know what net worth is. That’s my solution. Details will come soon. Then let’s see if you will say the same thing.

  • Tiger Fan

    The question needs to be, “why is it when you have a majority black population, they have to be given special treatment and rules?” Its like they have the mentality of an 8 year old child, no matter what their real age is. Why do they have such a problem integrating into society? Why can you not have more than two in a group without violence?Then when people move away from their thug neighborhoods, its called white flight? Hear is a very simple fix. Quit acting like freaking animals released from the zoo!!

  • Darnell Hardwick

    The bottom line is that the Police Chief tanked the seasons in 2011 and 2012 like the Philadelphia 76ers so he can get his force younger and less minorities. (Camden’s force went from 71% minorities to 60% white) But the reality is that there has been more homicides since the Metro policed the city May 1, 2013 (72 homicides) than in 2009 and 2010 combined (71 homicides) which was the years prior to the tanking and massive layoffs. Fact: Camden’s crime is no better off than what is was prior to Governor Christie reducing Camden ‘s aid in January 2011.

    • JOE

      Ric I think we have been through the consolidation issues before. It must have gone to the poles because it was hot and heavy and went away. I don’t remember, but it went away and most were glad.
      Darnell, that has been the only improvement here in crime, when they manipulated the numbers…

  • Retired CPD

    The moral of the Police Department has not improved. The reprtor should have had an opportunity to speak with the Officers outside of the work place. Alot of the new officers that were hired during this transition are seeking employment else where. The Chief does not allow them to do intergovernmental transfers to other Police Departments. The crime stats can not be trusted because they report/publish what makes the department look good. the Police Department does not respond to all crimes. They basically pick and choose what they want to handle. This would be the last place I would look to for positive change.

  • John T. Dwyer

    Memphis had it’s COACT units in the inner city neighborhoods. It had “Neighborhood Watch” in every neighborhood. It had it’s “Directed Patrol” in every neighborhood. It had a “Specialized Patrol” in every neighborhood. It had a “City Watch” program in every neighborhood. It had a “Crime Analysis” unit in every neighborhood. It had “Crime Prevention Bureau” doing the dog and pony in every neighborhood. It had “Singing Cops” doing the soft soap in every neighborhood. It had “Bicycle Patrols”. It had “Mounted Donkey Patrol.” It had it’s “Officer in the School” program. It’s had “Midnight Basketball.” It’s had the “Food Give Away” program. It’s had the “Give the Ghetto Kids a Bicycle” program. They have had a be sweet to the nutcases CIT program. They have had a real crime tracking video game program. They’ve had the Joke-a-Kowski, Betts college paper program. They’ve had an ICAP program. They’ve had a ride with a cop program. They’ve had a cub scout explorer program. They’ve had a reserve, hobby cop, tanker truck guard, barbeque cooking program. They’ve even opened neighborhood precincts right next door to where people still get shot and killed.
    Hell, they even had 2, $10,000 robots that disappeared!!!
    You name it, Memphis has had it. This is exactly what Camden is doing today.

    What they haven’t had is aggressive policing in each neighborhood.
    Citizens wanted a kinder, gentler, tamer, and dumber police department.
    Seems they got it.

  • Leftunwillingly

    After the new department was formed about 75 plus officers have resigned or quit and several more are trying to leave and the chief won’t sign off on their leave. In the last 7 days there has been 6 homicides. Crime has not gone done the department just learned how to mask it!!!!!

  • The Truth

    MEMPHIS: WANT THE TRUTH? DON’T LISTEN TO THE PRESS, LISTEN TO THE OFFICERS WHO WERE THROWN OUT OF CAMDEN.
    — In Camden, the department went from an “older, diverse” department (roughly 1/3 white, 1/3 black, and 1/3 Hispanic) to 60% white and less minorities.
    — Civil Service rules (you know the ones where officers take a state test for promotions) were suspended and the chief was able to promote his friends several ranks up the ladder, better who you know than what you know.
    — Crime was driven up prior to the county takeover. Notice they will only compare the Metro stats to the high 2 years just prior. How did this happen? Well, they assigned double, even triple, the number of officers on their days off to patrol empty parking lots for concerts that were not starting until hours later. Thus costing the city the difference.
    — Overtime was driven through the roof. Officers spouses actually complained at a City Council meeting that there was too much unwanted/unneeded overtime being forced on an already stretched-thin force. No time off to de-stress.
    — Crime numbers are artificially and illegally being changed.
    — Burglaries are being changed to thefts (theft from auto in many cases) or trespassing (burglaries to buildings).
    — Aggravated assaults are being changed to simple assaults. (this is documented in a Philadelphia Inquirer article by Michael Boren.)
    — Since then, they are not allowing reporters to see incident reports, which was always the practice in the past. What are they hiding by trying to circumvent OPRA and say they are “active investigations” ???
    — Metro was called to an occupied auto that was shot up near Pennsauken, instead of attempted murder or aggravated assault, it was made a “criminal mischief”.
    — Listen carefully to the stats they quote: if they say “daytime shootings are down”, look at all shootings or nighttime shootings. They usually carefully craft the statistics they report to the public.
    — The chief and other administrators are being sued by two former internal affairs commanders for violating the Attorney General’s policy on Internal Affairs procedures. He has created a culture of fear and intimidation.
    — Turnover and attrition in the Metro department are higher than any year in the city. Officers are trying to get out in droves. Why? What they tell the public and what they tell and do to the officers are two completely different things.
    — A lawsuit was also filed (I don’t believe it is finished yet) that said that the administration was using a quota system. This doesn’t sound like “we aren’t going to arrest our way out”.
    — Severe and unfair discipline was levied against any who “they” thought was not on the “team”, whether real or merely perceived. Under this administration, it was a living hell to work there.
    — Certain members of the community are used as mouthpieces for quotes in the press, which is politically controlled by the same entities who pushed for the county takeover.
    — The new budget of the county metro department DOES NOT INCLUDE many costs that the city budget included, including DISPATCH and much of the CONCERT costs.
    — Does the term “snake oil salesman” mean anything to you? If you have to keep telling people how great you are, are you really great?
    — The fact of the matter is, they are only approaching the same numbers that were in Camden in 2009, prior to the political experiment known as Camden County Police Department. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

      • The Truth

        And most of technology was in place prior to metro taking over policing in Camden.
        Patrol car cameras are being phased in throughout the state, as required.
        They are downgrading the crimes to drop out of the top two most dangerous crime rankings which basically use the UCR index crimes. So, an aggravated assault is weighted more heavily than a simple assault and a burglary is weighted more than a theft.

        The Feds need to sweep that place clean of the criminals!

      • The Truth

        Governor Christie also lied numerous times telling the public that Camden cops got off for their birthday. Not once, not ever, just a pure lie!

    • The Truth

      The funny thing:

      NOTHING was consolidated, no other municipality joined the county!
      They absorbed a few park police officers and the county has 4 law enforcement agencies:
      The Prosecutors Office
      Sheriffs Department
      Corrections Department
      Metro Police

  • not sure

    That all sounds good but Camden’s population is approximately 80,000. So are we to fire the entire police force of Memphis. That is unlikely to happen. You want to cut down on crime try getting Nashville to pass a 3 strike law and instead of these thugs getting in and out of jail, they are facing life on a 3 felony conviction. The police getting involved with the people they serve on a friendlier basis is great, it has proven to work anywhere or anyplace.

    • The Truth

      Camden county and city fought and are still fighting to keep the policing of Camden off of a referendum vote to be decided by the people.
      Why???

  • Fred Hiatt

    Excellent story about Camden NJ, that is something our leaders should consider. It will take a strong leader not considering reelection. Great work, and we need more stories like this and less sadness – Kroger mob, murders, etc….

    Thank you

  • The Truth

    Quote all of the crime drops you want to in Camden but the simple truth is that Camden has been #1 or #2 worst crime city in America EVERY YEAR this chief has been in charge:
    2008
    2009
    2010
    2011
    2012
    2013

  • Meme

    Memphis needs to take a page out of Camden NJ ‘ s play book. There may be something to it. The Mayor and 7 of the city council need removing. The repeat offenders are getting free rides. The community as a whole need to come together and help the youth.

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