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.”

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