After Camden police changeover, memories come out in force

In 1944, police leaving City Hall in a pension protest. The department's end is stirring memories.
In 1944, police leaving City Hall in a pension protest. The department's end is stirring memories.
Posted: May 13, 2013

More than 30 years ago, as Charles J. Kocher and fellow officer Raymond Garrison patrolled the streets of Camden, the two got the idea of creating a city police museum, and they did, one item at a time.

Officers and family members fetched old uniforms, batons, and badges from attics and lent photos dating to the 1920s.

In 1981, the display opened in the lobby of the department's new Federal Street headquarters.

Among the exhibits were a microphone from a two-way 1930s radio and snapshots of "potato sacks" - wool, below-the-knee police coats - and of green police wagons from the 1950s.

"It was a labor of love . . . for the love of the department," Kocher said last week. He retired as captain in 1999 and is now the dean of business education and the social science division at Cumberland County College.

Gone from view

Somewhere along the way the exhibits, some of them displayed in an old paint cabinet, disappeared from view, and now so has the old police department that the little museum had sought to honor.

The department - local historians place its origins variously in 1828 and 1871 - was dismantled on April 30, making way for a county-run force in the violence-torn city.

The end of the Camden Police Department has triggered a deluge of memories from retired officers.

Former officers recall being closely knit with the community. Officers were required to live in the city then; they went to church there; they volunteered to chaperone a championship city high school basketball team.

There were dark times, too.

On Sept. 6, 1949, Camden police were tested as never before by the killing rampage of Howard Unruh, a World War II veteran.

In a deadly walk along River Road, he killed 13 people, including three children, in what was the nation's worst mass murder at the time. Cornered and wounded by police, he surrendered. He was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and never tried, dying in captivity in 2009, at age 88.

Racial strife

In the 1960s and '70s, racial strife nationwide and race riots in the city were reflected in tension between black and white officers.

Three of the nine officers killed in the line of duty in the force's history died in 1969.

Still, "when you joined the Camden Police Department in the 1960s, you were joining something special," said Warren Larry Worrell, 66, a retired sergeant with the K-9 unit who now lives in Florida.

Camden was incorporated in 1828, in part to bolster police protection "against rowdy Philadelphia visitors," according to Camden County, New Jersey 1616-1976: A Narrative History, by Jeffery M. Dorwart and Philip English Mackey.

The city police first became uniformed in 1868, according to a 1962 annual report of the department posted on a website ( www.dvrbs.com) run by local historian Phil Cohen.

The department, under a new 1871 city charter, became a full-time force of 25 and city officials appointed the first chief, Daniel W. Curliss. He was paid $950 a year. Patrolmen earned $750 a year.

Paul W. Schopp, former director of the Camden County Historical Society, said an assault on black voters by white residents in 1870 may have forced the city to create the full-time department.

"They just didn't have the personnel and organization to respond to something like the election riots of 1870," he said.

That year, "Camden City Democrats appear to have imported some off-duty Philadelphia policemen to help them prevent blacks from voting. Whites took over polling places, attacked black voters with fists, chairs, benches, and guns," Dorwart and Mackey write.

The first black officer, William Butts, came nearly 20 years later, in 1887, according to the book.

In the early 1900s, the advent of motor vehicles created a new challenge. Horses and cars collided so often "that the city horse ambulance carried away disabled animals every day," Dorwart and Mackey wrote.

County Prosecutor Frank T. Lloyd stationed Camden police on the White Horse Pike to flag down speeding motorists and ordered constables to "shoot out" tires of those who refused to stop.

In 1960, Camden Police Chief William Neale started South Jersey's first K-9 unit after visiting the New York Police Department's canine unit, Kocher said. Other South Jersey departments flocked to Camden for police training around that time, Kocher said.

In 1969, the department would lose three officers in three months.

On July 5, 1969, two rookies - Charles Sutman and George E. Schultz - were killed when responding to a domestic disturbance in South Camden.

Gilbert "Whip" Wilson, also a rookie then, was among those who responded. Wilson said he and a partner raced to the hospital with the motionless Sutman in the back seat.

Two months later, another rookie, Rand Chandler, 22, was killed by sniper fire. A 15-year-old black resident died in the same volley of shots.

Racial tension had been simmering amid minor confrontations between police and the Black People's Unity Movement, an activist group that sought to promote economic rights.

"You were riding through city streets not knowing if it might be a brick coming from a vacant house or a shot from a rooftop," said Wilson, who retired as a lieutenant in 1997 and is now a state assemblyman representing Camden.

Charged, cleared

In August 1971, members of the Puerto Rican community rioted after Worrell and Gary Miller, a fellow officer, were accused of fatally beating a Latino motorist during a July 30 traffic stop. The man died two months later.

Worrell and Miller were suspended and charged in the death. In 1973, a jury cleared the two officers.

Worrell declined to discuss the incident except to say, "We did nothing wrong."

Around the same time, the Brotherhood for Unity and Progress, a group representing minority officers, was formed to address what officers believed was discrimination in promotions. It filed a suit in 1987 that was settled in 1990.

Wilson, a former president of the group, said it also alleged police brutality by a few white officers.

Two weeks ago in Florida, Worrell dined with four other retired officers. They lamented the department's end. "It's sad," he said. But mostly, they recalled "the funny stuff, the goofy stuff."

"I guess it's a human defense mechanism - you're not going to sit down and talk about the five worst nights you had working in the Camden Police Department," Worrell said.

As for the police museum, a Camden County spokesman said the artifacts had been packed away until a $1.8 million capital improvement project at police headquarters is completed and the display will be restored.


Contact Darran Simon

at 856-779-3829 or at dsimon@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @darransimon.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|