Camden police, residents credit building trust among community for 50-year crime low

By MIKE DOUGHERTY, January 1, 2019

CAMDEN, N.J. (KYW Newsradio) — Camden was once considered one of the most dangerous places in the country. While it's still far from a finished product, crime is down and graduation rates are up over the past five years. 

Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said overall crime in the city is at a 50-year low. The key, he said, is building trust and repairing a fractured relationship with residents.

"Community policing cannot be an initiative. It has to be a philosophy," said Thomson. "It has to be ingrained in the culture of the organization."

The murder rate has dropped

The murder rate has dropped

 by 60 percent over five years, and violent crime is down by 40 percent. Thomson credits a transition from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality that's making the difference. 

"It's not a unilateral police effort that's making Camden better. It's really the empowerment of the people and putting them in position so that they can reclaim their neighborhoods," he added. "The byproduct of that has been that more people now leave their homes. More people now will let their children play in front of their houses, ride their bikes."

Camden County Police

Bryan Morton of North Camden said residents have noticed the shift in police policy. When the same cop is in the neighborhood every day, he said, it's easier for people to ask for help or report crime.

"Getting out of their cars, walking up and down the streets, getting to know the community, identifying who the good citizens are," he said. "Residents feel that they can trust turning over information that would lead to the arrest."

Now that residents are getting a taste of what could be, they are looking out for one another even more.

"The opportunities are here to not only enjoy life but to feel safe here in Camden," Morton added.

Citywide, Camden reduced its open-air drug markets from about 175 to now 30. North Camden, once known as the Heroin Highway, had more than 30 open-air drug markets alone at one point. Now, there are none.

Thomson said there were so many groups selling dope within such a small area that it defied logic.

"We've gone from the worst neighborhood in terms of violent crime and drug activities to the safest neighborhood," continued Thomson. "We've even had people who come home from jail — who were once contributors to that problem — they remark on its transition and its progress."

But there are many troubled neighborhoods, he said, and he isn't claiming victory yet.

"We still have a long road ahead of us," he admitted, "but where we are today is much better than where we were yesterday, and I think we'll be in a better place tomorrow."