Many Camden residents hopeful about new police force

Police recruits to the Camden County force in Camden listen to a presentation.
Police recruits to the Camden County force in Camden listen to a presentation. (in Camden listen to a presentation by Camden K-9 Officer Zsakhimem James, speakingto them about working with police dogs.)
Posted: April 08, 2013

Twenty years ago, two men, one toting a sawed-off shotgun, the other wielding a pistol, barged into Frank's Deli. Paul Kang, whose parents bought the place in the 1980s, remembers being so scared during the robbery that he trembled for the rest of day.

Frank's hasn't been robbed since, but there is crime all around in Camden's Waterfront South neighborhood, where men sell drugs on street corners. In January 2011, 20-year-old Anjanea Williams was shot dead outside Frank's, caught in the cross fire between drug dealers.

"It might be impossible to do, but I think just going back to the old school, and having cops walk the beat and be a presence . . . it deters crime," Kang said, sipping his fourth cup of coffee one afternoon as customers bustled around.

Proponents of a new county force - which will replace the beleaguered 141-year-old Camden Police Department by April 30 - say residents and shopkeepers like Kang will soon get their wish: more police officers, many on bicycle patrols and walking the beat.

Backed by Gov. Christie, the new department is already becoming a reality. More than 100 officers - many of whom have never worked in the city - will be sworn in Monday; 23 of them will hit the streets for two months of training alongside a dozen former city officers who will supervise them.

They will have to learn neighborhoods and identify community issues and address them. More officers, including many former city officers, are expected to follow each week. By the end of the month, the force will have nearly 300 officers, and eventually, it will reach 400.

In interviews across the city, residents - from a father whose son survived a gunshot to the head to a woman whose daughter's sleepover was interrupted by the pop-pop of gunshots - generally expressed optimism, though some cautiously, about the new force.

"The people I talk to are like 'Bring in it on,' " said Sister Helen Cole, a social worker with Guadalupe Family Services in North Camden who started an annual peace vigil in 1995, when the city reached a then-record of 58 homicides. "They're tired of being known as the city with all this violence. They're raising their kids here, and some of them are working really hard."

But amid optimism, there is also concern that new officers - who hail from departments in Evesham and Trenton, to name just two - may neither be familiar with the city nor sensitive to its residents.

Camden, a city of 77,0000, is consistently one of the nation's most dangerous and poorest cities. Last year, the city recorded 67 homicides, a record. As of Friday, there were 12 homicides - one more than this time last year.

The new force's metro division, which will patrol only Camden, will be substantially larger than the one it is replacing, now fewer than 230 officers. Suburban towns, so far, have balked on joining the county force.

County officials said they are able to support a bigger force because it is not governed by current police contracts, which they term overly generous. The budget for the new force is estimated to be $63 million, about $6 million higher than what the city had budgeted for its current force. Camden's budget is subsidized by the state.

Christie has signed off on more than $5 million in start-up costs. But it's unclear what long-term financial commitment Camden will get from the governor, who has said he wants to wean cities off state aid. An itemized operating budget has not been released.

"I do think other agencies and other governments are watching to see how this unfolds, and if it's a good idea," said Louis Tuthill, an assistant professor of criminology at Rutgers University-Camden.

Joe Cordero, a police consultant who was hired to create the force and spent more than 20 years with the New York Police Department, said his approach was rooted in part in an encounter he had with a grandmother in the South Bronx in the 1990s.

At a community meeting where the NYPD touted the success of a drug sweep and the arrest of about a dozen people for murder, the woman put her hand on her hip and demanded that officers do something about the stolen cars and streetwalkers in her neighborhood.

"Perception of crime and safety is personal. It's subjective," said Cordero, who in 2007 became New Jersey's first state director of gangs, guns, and violent crime. "And so if we're going to claim victory because we've achieved something measurable, we have to make it resonate with people."

Cordero said there was an expectation that "this process is going to bring out the change people want," though he warned against quick judgments.

"My caution is that when you flip the switch, we should not expect that crime is going to drop precipitously overnight," he said. "We should not expect . . . that people are going to feel safer just because there is a new organization and there is a new approach."

Laura Sánchez, a social worker who has lived in Fairview Village with her family for a dozen years, said she had warmed to the idea of the new force and was "excited."

She said she had heard gunshots ring out more frequently, several times a week. Recently the sound of gunshots rustled her daughter and a friend from a light sleep. The two girls burst into Sánchez's room.

"They said: 'Did you hear those shots? We don't want to go back downstairs. Come with us,' " Sánchez said.

She sat with the girls for 45 minutes until they fell asleep.

Cole, the social worker at Guadalupe Family Services, said she was curious to see the outcome.

Like some in Camden, Cole sees an antiunion strategy in the dismantling of the city department. "As much as I know it's been a struggle for some of my friends who are police officers, and the whole union-busting process . . . I just want to see something different," she said.

The transition has left a bad taste with some officers. Harry Leon, 43, a Camden police lieutenant, said he and several dozen officers who were offered jobs were led into a hallway of the county's police services building March 18. Commanding officers watched as a supervisor offered them conditional employment.

"You had to decide . . . right on the spot," Leon said. He would have faced giving up seniority and 250 sick days amassed over 23 years.

"You can walk into McDonald's, they'll interview you and at least let you think about it," he said.

Leon said another officer cried as she agreed to sign on.

He himself was offered $104,000 without explanation - a decrease from his base salary of $110,000. Some lower-ranked officers were promoted, he said.

He wanted the job - just not the offer, he said.

He retired as of Monday - one day short of the start of his 24th year. Last week, he and his wife searched for a home in Phoenix, where their two adult sons attend school.

"To give your best years and for them not to be fair, that's the bitterness I leave with," said Leon, who hopes to find another job in law enforcement. "I feel a sense of 'I didn't make it to the finish line.' "


Contact Darran Simon

at 856-779-3829 or at dsimon@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @darransimon.

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