MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Sometimes it’s easy to think Memphis is the only city facing big problems like violent crime, poverty, a shrinking tax base, and low police morale. Camden, New Jersey, faced the same challenges, and finally decided to do something bold because the crime rate was keeping jobs and investment away.
Now, just two years since re-starting its police department, businesses want to come in. We were there when Jason Ravitz opened up the city’s first new grocery store in 40 years.
He said, “How can you expect any business to come into an area without a safe city?”
When WREG’s Richard Ransom asked what finally made him decide Camden would be worth the investment, Ravitz replied, “I think the formation of the Camden County Police Department and the ability for them to get into the 21st or even 22nd century with technology, manpower, boots on the ground. The community policing. The safety issues got secured.”
In Camden, they have a saying that ‘a job stops a bullet.’ Ravitz’s supermarket hired 100 people.
“You keep the younger people employed. Keep them busy. Teach them a skill. Give them hope and an opportunity for a career, they don’t have to turn to the other bad things that can happen,” he said.
More big projects are on the horizon for this city the finally grew tired of living in fear. So, how did it happen? Camden County Excecutive Lou Cappelli and his fellow commissioners took a simple vote to form the new Camden County Police. It only replaced the city’s police department, not the sheriff’s office.
If other municipalities in Camden County want to opt-in, they can. Cappelli said the sell to voters was easy.
“The sale was simple. Public safety is the most important function of any local government and we needed to make changes to provide adequate service to residents and they understand that,” he said.
The state of New Jersey chipped in $10 million in start-up money and waived civil service obligations for one year. That allowed the new department to lower the average cost per officer, including all benefits, from $180,000 a year to $90,000.
That was the tough part. But Capelli says there was no other choice because “mayors for decades past gave away the store.”
It got ugly. There were death threats and the police union was furious.
“(The union) started a lot of misinformation that tainted the decision-making process for many of the union,” Cappelli said.
In the end, 80 of the city’s officers left or retired. The rest of the officers applied to join the new county department. All but five were given a badge.
“They came over with the same salary and because of a lot of the vacancies created, most of them have been promoted to a higher rank. So, most of them who stuck with us are very happy and doing a tremendous job,” Cappelli said.
One of those, officers told us it’s fun to be a cop again, in part, because he’s trusted more to do his job.
Sgt. Ralph Thornton said, “As a sergeant, I have the power if I have a problem area, I can reallocate my manpower to handle that area just by doing it. I don’t have to ask permission.”
That trust boosted police morale, But so have the results. Murders are down 56 percent (from 2012-2014), shootings are down by 48 percent, property crime is down 30 percent and overall violent crime is down 22 percent.
Also, a once polarized relationship with the public is getting better.
“They (the public) tell us what’s going on and we act. Prior to the Camden County Police Department, this didn’t take place. We were more of a reactional police department. Now we’re pro-active. We’re there all the time,” Sgt. Thornton said.
County Commissioner Cappelli, who is a Democrat by the way, offered this advice to Memphis: “You cant be afraid to do things because what the unions will say because of what the backlash will be. thre residents of your city know what’s best. ”
Does Memphis need to follow Camden’s lead? That’s best left to others. But, as the station On Your Side, WREG is committed to advancing the conversation because it’s going to take all hands on deck.