New police try to change minds, win hearts in Camden streets

Christian Jeffries helped change "my opinion of the white officer 100 percent, because they're nice," a woman said.
Christian Jeffries helped change "my opinion of the white officer 100 percent, because they're nice," a woman said. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 26, 2014

The three young Camden County police officers grow wide-eyed as a woman explains why her boyfriend is clutching his elbow, wincing between cigarette puffs.

"He can move his fingers, but his bone is sticking out," she says. The injury, apparently from slipping on ice, is hidden beneath his puffy black coat. The officers radio for an ambulance.

"How many days ago this happen?" Officer Christian Jeffries asks. "Two days," the woman responds. "He don't like hospitals."

"I don't either," Jeffries quips.

The interaction, even over this woman's unusual story, is what the police force is counting on to control the streets, and win the trust of wary residents, in the violence-torn city's most dangerous neighborhoods.

The addition in December of 88 recruits, which boosted the force to 327 sworn officers, has allowed foot patrols to be implemented in each of the city's 21 neighborhoods.

The patrols were first deployed in April in Fairview and Parkside, where the department deemed them a success.

But neighborhoods such as Whitman Park have more complex problems. There, at least 11 people have been killed since 2012 - more than in Fairview and Parkside combined.

Jeffries, a 23-year-old from Atlantic City, readily acknowledges that Whitman Park is a bigger challenge: Fewer places for children to play. More drugs.

Crowds dealing at corners have long been a staple of Whitman Park, particularly along Louis Street, where police say heroin has been a hot seller.

Now, though, the street sits mostly empty, with the occasional resident walking by graffiti-plastered walls and boarded-up houses, many marked by the words DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS.

"That was probably the biggest street for us to take back," Jeffries said.

He and two other officers spend eight-hour day shifts walking around a "box" that spans several blocks in each direction. Each box typically has a unit of two to three officers, sometimes up to six, with the units rotating areas about every two weeks, Jeffries said.

Jeffries and his crew - three white guys in their 20s from outside this city of minorities - stand out, particularly in a neighborhood where residents figure a young white man walking is lost or lurking for drugs.

But on this day last week, residents said they appreciated the presence.

"In the beginning it was paranoia-ing," says a 37-year-old Camden woman, who identifies herself only as 'Marijuana.' But, she said, "it changed my opinion of the white officer 100 percent, because they're nice. They're decent."

Adds Jonathan Over, who owns a hardware store on Mount Ephraim Avenue: "You'd go out on any corner, and there were 10 or 15" people stirring trouble. "Now you're lucky if you get three or four at a time."

The fight to win back the streets comes as the county police force continues to grow its brass, with plans to reach 411 officers by June. Some are former members of the city police force, which was disbanded last spring.

Whether the controversial move reaps success remains open for debate.

Two weekends ago, police responded to a call of someone shooting an AK-47 in Centerville, just south of Whitman Park. No one was shot, but the call was enough to rattle some officers' nerves.

And despite the extension of foot patrols into all of the city's neighborhoods - police will not say how many officers are in each - Camden has seven homicides this year. The city had 57 homicides last year, among its worst, and the previous year saw a record 67.

So the officers prepare. They throw on a bulletproof vest, pack pepper spray and two extra magazines on their belts, lodge a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun into their holsters, and hope a simple "Hey, how ya doing?" will be more powerful than a weapon.


BY THE NUMBERS

88

Camden police recruits added

in December.

327

Sworn officers

in Camden.

411

Total officers proposed by June.

57

Camden homicides last year, among

its worst.


mboren@phillynews.com

856-779-3829 @borenmc

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