Camden is calmer but still N.J.'s most dangerous city

Pastor Ed Barron says the area around his church, Higher Ground Temple Church of God in Christ, has improved since Camden County replaced the city police in 2012. (CHRIS FASCENELLI Staff Photographer)
Pastor Ed Barron says the area around his church, Higher Ground Temple Church of God in Christ, has improved since Camden County replaced the city police in 2012. (CHRIS FASCENELLI Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 30, 2015

Two stories of Camden have emerged.

The first comes from Gov. Christie and Camden County officials. They point to 2012 - the city's deadliest year ever - and say crime has dropped dramatically, thanks to a sweeping overhaul of policing that cut costs and added officers to the streets.

The second comes from Camden residents and activists, who call comparisons with 2012 misleading.

"Just because [the streets] are calmer doesn't mean the danger went away," says Angel Cordero, a community activist. "The danger's still there."

Homicides are sharply down from three years ago, when there were a record 67, but the number last year, 33, was close to what used to be the norm - when Camden was routinely at or near the top of the list of the most violent cities in the nation.

And despite the gains, police data show Camden is still the most crime-plagued city in the state, as it has been since 2007.

Camden's violent-crime rate - while registering one of the biggest declines statewide - remains the highest among cities in New Jersey, at 2,015 per 100,000 people, with the closest being Atlantic City, at 1,322. (This rate is used by the FBI so that crime trends can be examined as population sizes change, even for cities such as Camden with fewer than 100,000 people.)

So what's really happening in Camden?

The reality falls somewhere between the two stories, as Cordero, 53, describes.

"I am a lot more comfortable as a citizen with Camden police today as opposed to the old force," he said, pointing to more officers walking the streets and talking to residents.

But Cordero also recalls gunshots erupting next to the pizza shop where he was grabbing dinner last summer for his wife and stepdaughter. "We're still as dangerous as before," he said.

As the city approaches two years of having a Camden County-run police force, which replaced the disbanded city department in May 2013 - in what Christie called "a transformational moment" - the two stories have come to the fore.

Few dispute that the county's Metro Division, which patrols just Camden City, has made progress. The number of robbery victims last year fell to 531, the lowest since at least 2000. Many residents also report less gunfire and fewer open-air drug markets in their neighborhoods.

Violent crime, however, has dropped in cities across New Jersey, even those where the police force was not replaced as it was in Camden.

Some crime numbers have also caused residents to question the extent of the progress there.

Camden County police recorded 2,349 victims of simple assault last year, the most in more than a decade. The spike is of concern to the Camden County chapter of the NAACP. Its president, Colandus "Kelly" Francis, a longtime Camden resident who is a critic of the county force, wonders if part of the spike reflects downgrading of more serious crimes.

The department has denied the NAACP's request to review incident reports that detail simple assaults, saying the reports are not public records. In contrast, Jersey City generally releases incident reports.

"The fact that they don't want to reveal them makes me very suspicious of what has happened in Camden," Francis said.

In the past, police in cities such as Philadelphia and Los Angeles were found to have misclassified more serious crimes as simple assaults, giving the impression that violent crime had dropped.

As is standard procedure, New Jersey State Police audited Camden's Part I crimes, such as homicide, robbery, and aggravated assault, and found nothing amiss. But the November audit did not review Part II crimes, which include simple assault.

Dan Keashen, Camden County's spokesman, suggested the increase was due to more residents reporting assaults to officers, who he said are more accessible because of an increase in foot patrols. Police, he said, also began categorizing threats made by social media as simple assaults in late 2013.

Fights or domestic disputes that cause minor, but not serious, injuries also are classified as simple assaults.

"We want to reduce those," Keashen said. "We want to make sure that they're being reduced, just like our violent crime is being reduced."

Camden County Metro Police Chief Scott Thomson did not respond to requests for comment.

Keashen said that county officials have compared recent crime levels with those in 2012 because that was the last full year of operation for the previous city police department.

That year, when a record number were killed, the department had fewer than 300 officers. Last year, when half as many people were slain, the department was up to nearly 400 officers.

Former Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison and others, in interviews, questioned why Christie and county officials keep comparing 2014 with 2012.

"I think it's comparing apples and oranges," Faison said.

"It's misleading," Cordero, the activist, said.

When asked about those concerns, a spokesman for Christie referred to the governor's past speeches, in which he touted a 22 percent drop in violent crime in Camden. Kevin Roberts said that "while these are hugely significant strides for Camden on the public-safety front, there is absolutely more work to be done."

Some residents say they do feel safer now compared with previous years.

Ed Barron, a pastor at Higher Ground Temple Church of God in Christ in North Camden, said that parishioners who previously feared walking to church now do so.

Jennifer Martinez, 31, who lives in the Bergen Square neighborhood, said that she hides her children from gunfire less often now and that police are "really cracking down. Everybody's getting locked up."

County officials this month announced a $66,800 raise for Chief Thomson, with Keashen calling him "one of the sharpest law enforcement minds in the country."

Last month, Thomson spoke to a presidential task force - cochaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey - on community policing, telling the group, "Police must enforce the law with the people, and not unilaterally upon them."

Some Camden residents, however, have voiced concerns to the American Civil Liberties Union about police doing exactly the latter. The complaints stem from officers writing a high number of tickets for petty offenses, such as riding a bicycle without a bell and loitering on a sidewalk.

The Inquirer reported in December that the number of tickets for low-level offenses had skyrocketed under the Metro force, in some cases to levels unseen in a decade.

Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU's New Jersey division, said this month that the organization plans to review whom Camden police are stopping, why, and what personal information the department is keeping from each stop.

"There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered," Ofer said. "And I think that if Camden wants to build trust with the community members, then one important way to do that is to be fully transparent with its practices."


An online tracker allows users to look up crimes to see if they have been accurately classified: www.philly.com/CamdenCrime


mboren@phillynews.com856-779-3829 @borenmc

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