Gabe Rodriguez grew up in Camden, New Jersey wanting to be a cop.
Although police are often the ones residents turn to in their worst moments, he always envisioned the job as a force for good.
"You always associated that interaction with police with that negative time in your life," he said. "I always thought there's got to be a better way." For the past 18 years, the lieutenant has lived his dream, first working for Camden's city police department, which was disbanded in 2013, and then with the Camden County force that replaced it.
With the change in police force came a fundamental change in policing, he said.
"[Now] it's going out, partnering up with the community, identifying locations of concern, and occupying that space," he explained. "Bringing the good people out, pushing the bad away."
As the calls grow across the U.S. to defund police departments and create community-supported policing, the experiences of Rodriguez and his colleagues are often being cited.
It is true that the new county police department is reporting a drop in violent crime and complaints against officers, but Camden activists say the system is far from a perfect model, claiming police have abandoned areas of the city, aren't enforcing rules, and are letting crime go.
"Are there two extremes to everything?" said Amir Khan, pastor at New Beginnings of Camden, an organization that focuses on helping people who are homeless. "Yes, but the problem is you can't allow people to do whatever they want and not have circumstances or deal with the repercussions of their actions."
'Warnings Over Summons'
Camden is only 9 square miles, a small city compared to neighboring Philadelphia. In the early 1900s, it was an industrial city and manufacturing hub. But after World War II, major corporations began to move out, leaving vast shortages of jobs and money to keep the local economy afloat.
Decades later, the struggling city took another hit during the 2008 recession and was slow to recover
Over the years, Camden also became known in the region for its purer forms of heroin, creating a seemingly insurmountable drug problem. By 2012, the city logged 67 homicides within its small territory, eventually leading to splashy national headlines like Camden Ranks Most Dangerous City In The Country.
"We knew there were problems and we tried to arrest our way out of those problems," Lt. Rodriguez said. "Everything was about arrests. Gun arrests, drug arrests, car chases."
In 2013, the old Camden City police force was disbanded, but why that happened is an issue up for debate. Supporters of the newer county department say corruption, a fiscal crisis, and treatment of residents by the old force led to the need to dismantle the system and build something from the ground up with new principles. "We decided that it was a good time to explore the possibility of wiping the slate clean, starting with a new department, a new policing model that would gain the trust of the residents, and lower the number of crimes taking place on a yearly basis," said Camden County freeholder director Louis Cappelli.Others say the disbanding of the old force was mostly politics, fueled by then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's fight against police unions. Less money for the city led to a gradual defunding of local cops, who lacked the technology and resources to help the residents, and eventually layoffs in the department. In turn, that led to higher levels of crime. Khan recalled a time when local drug dealers were wearing shirts claiming "This is my city now."
By 2013, the newly-formed Camden County Police Department was in charge of policing the area. Chief J. Scott Thomson modeled the new department with community involvement in mind, saying he wanted officers to be more peace bearers than warriors.
The old force was an us-versus-them mentality, Cappelli said.
"They didn't get out of their cars," he said. "They drove around. There was high absenteeism, bad culture, bad morale and at any given time there were only eight to 12 officers on the street. The new model, we have officers interacting with residents in a positive model on a daily basis, and that is helping us build the trust necessary to form the partnership needed to fight crime and to solve crime."
Of course, crime is complicated, and the way police respond to illegal activity can have a direct effect on individuals in the community, Lieutenant Rodriguez pointed out. He once asked a young man selling drugs why he would turn to illegal activities. The suspect admitted his mom did not work and he had four siblings at home. With no one hiring, he had to do what he could to make sure his brothers and sisters could eat.
As part of the new way of policing, a goal is to avoid placing hardships on individuals already struggling when infractions are minor.
"We have this model here, warnings over summons," Rodriguez said. "We're going to stop a car, give that person a ticket, possibly take food off of their table?"The cops also need to gain the trust of locals, he said, with members of the community already suspicious of racial profiling and other discriminatory actions by the police. Even Rodriguez himself says he worries about interactions with other officers. He gets nervous when he is pulled over or reaches for his wallet to show his badge. Sometimes he says the first question he is asked during a traffic stop isn't for his license or registration, but "Do you have a warrant?" In college, he said he was pulled over just for wearing a hoodie inside his car. His heater had been broken at the time and he didn't have the money to fix it.
"Coming out of my barbershop before this pandemic, I was stopped by officers," he said. "Again, [I was asked] 'Do you have any warrants? What are you doing out here?' I just got a haircut. Why are you stopping me?"In an effort to strengthen community relations, now officers stop by local businesses to check on how they are doing, have coffee in local homes, and build relationships with young people. Sometimes the department even holds block parties with barbecues or hands out frozen treats from ice cream trucks.
Aside from community building, though, there is the hard work to do in dealing with crime and handling tense situations, especially when it involves dealing with people who suffer from mental health issues. Now officers are trained to try to slow things down before resorting to physical violence. Previously the rule in the Academy was if someone was within 21 feet and threatening them, officers were justified in using deadly force, Rodriguez said.
The new community focus also means police are relying on neighborhoods to police themselves for smaller crimes. Residents tend to rely on cops for all of society's ills, from murderers to neighbors who haven't cut their grass, Rodriguez explained. What the system should do is allocate the correct professionals to handle the situations they are trained for. Social services issues, he said, would be better addressed by mental health professionals and sometimes residents should be encouraged to handle disputes themselves. For example, Camden County doesn't respond to small car accidents, opting to have residents self-report the crimes to the precinct.
The stats show Camden is cleaning up. The department reported violent and non-violent crimes have decreased by more than 37 percent since 2014. Excessive force complaints dropped from 65 in 2014 to just 3 in 2019. Homicide clearance rates went from 16 percent in 2012, the last full year the Camden city police department was operational, to 80 percent this year to date. Meanwhile, areas of the city are being revitalized. The Waterfront has new development, while companies, including Subaru, are building their headquarters in the city. The NBA's Philadelphia 76ers brought their training facility across the river to Camden in 2016. Economic wins like these could bring new jobs to the area and give people more ways to earn a living besides illicit activity.
"People are forced to do bad things, but they're not all bad people," Rodriguez said. "The economy here is changing because crime has gone down, business has started to come in [bringing] job training, job opportunities."
Funding Camden Communities
The story is not as clear cut as the police department makes it seem, though, said Pastor Khan. The old officers were never the problem in Camden, he recalled. In fact, he said they were better than the new force mostly composed of officers who live outside the city and don't understand Camden residents.
"A lot of times what we did see was a black and brown police force," he said. "We saw officers that looked like us. We felt more comfortable then. Were there issues? You had a department that wasn't funded properly. Their equipment, their cars breaking down. You didn't have the technology you had today."
About 54 percent of Camden County officers and 40 percent of those in leadership positions are minorities. However, nearly 95 percent of the city's residents are from minority backgrounds. The disparity lies with the state requirements, which include testing that doesn't offer fair insight into whether a candidate will be a good officer, Freeholder Cappelli said. People are more likely to pass the test if they come from wealthier neighborhoods with more funding for education. He is proposing legislation to remove those testing restrictions for Camden County.
"You have to take a test in order to become a police officer," Cappelli said. "That test is racially biased and culturally biased. It's a proven fact."It's not just a matter of hiring more minority officers, though. Critics of the new county department believe the people making positive strides are some of the 157 officers who came up through the ranks of Camden's old city department, like Rodriguez, who they believe would have made the same differences if they had just received the right support. Others say modern body cameras have now made police more conscious of their actions.
"The same thing that was happening in the County police force could have happened in the city police if we had just taken a moment to reflect, reform it, and look at a way to make it work," said Unity Community Center director Ronsha Dickerson. Pastor Khan added that the touting of strides being made with the community policing model is unfair. Certain areas, like where Unity Community Center is located, have cops standing idle while crime goes on around them, he said. Drug deals and prostitution happen in broad daylight, 7-year-olds are walking to school next to gangs and people shooting up, and the stats have gone down because police aren't policing, he claimed."There has to be a balance instead of being out there having barbecues and Mister Softee [ice cream]," he said. "How about getting those that are causing corruption, causing problems on our street?"
Not having police respond to lesser crimes still puts people at risk, Khan said, using the example of police no longer responding to fender benders. It can be difficult for some people to convince parties at fault to go to the police precinct.
Ronsha Dickerson also noted that no officers have come into her center to say hello, an organization that has been around for decades. In an ideal world, she said, Camdenites should have been given control of budgets on how to fix Camden — not government officials. More support should go to social services and community programs, said Dickerson. The nonprofit Unity Community Center, which receives no government funding, provides low-cost classes like African dance and karate for kids to teach them leadership skills and show them other ways of life besides crime. This is the way to change a community, not adding more outside police forces, according to Dickerson."There's a lot of families who suffered deaths, broken homes, just the socioeconomic strain of being in a poor city that has not been given a lot to give back to its community," she said. "You need certain factors in a community to become safe havens or light-bearers."
Her door is open for conversations. The good news is that Rodriguez said he and his department want to chat as well. For Camden, that may be the best hope. If both sides can listen to each other, said the police lieutenant, they could bring about the changes that will really make its police system the one to watch. "Some of those folks that you say you spoke to that don't agree with everything we are doing, we'd love to hear from them," Rodriguez said. "We want to make things better and their involvement is key." And, Khan agrees that Camden is worth the fight.
"The greatest, strongest, most resilient people that you've ever met in your life are right here in Camden," he explained. "It's amazing."