Changes in Policing Take Hold in One of the Nation’s Most Dangerous Cities

By JOSEPH GOLDSTEIN, New York Times

CAMDEN, N.J. — Every few months, the police chief here asks which officers wrote the most tickets.

Elsewhere, this might lead to praise, but in Camden — where 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line, the murder rate compares to that of El Salvador and one of the most interesting experiments in American policing is underway — Chief J. Scott Thomson sees aggressive ticket writing as a sign that his officers don’t get the new program.

“Handing a $250 ticket to someone who is making $13,000 a year” — around the per capita income in the city — “can be life altering,” Chief Thomson said in an interview last year, noting that it can make car insurance unaffordable or result in the loss of a driver’s license. “Taxing a poor community is not going to make it stronger.”

Handling more vehicle stops with a warning, rather than a ticket, is one element of Chief Thomson’s new approach, which, for lack of another name, might be called the Hippocratic ethos of policing: Minimize harm, and try to save lives.

Officers are trained to hold their fire when possible, especially when confronting people wielding knives and showing signs of mental illness, and to engage them in conversation when commands of “drop the knife” don’t work. This sometimes requires backing up to a safer distance. Or relying on patience rather than anything on an officer’s gun belt.

And Chief Thomson has told officers that when they respond to shootings — or after the police open fire — they should carry the wounded into their cruisers and rush to the hospital, rather than wait for an ambulance.

Such changes were shaped partly by headlines and YouTube videos from far beyond Camden, a city of some 80,000 that for decades has been synonymous with blight and decline.

The unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in 2014, and the video from Staten Island of a dying Eric Garner gasping through a police chokehold, ignited a national dialogue about policing and race. Police departments were pressured to reconsider their policies for using force. Nationwide, many departments responded by issuing body-worn cameras; turning to “de-escalation” training in an effort to shoot fewer people; and paying more attention to how the police are perceived by black residents.

Across the country, the political momentum for police reform has slowed over the last year, even before the election of President Trump, whose administration has taken the position that federal efforts to make the police more accountable have made them less effective. Ambush attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., last year left eight officers dead, shifting the national discussion away from excessive force and toward the dangers officers face.

Brittany Gilmore, left, and Charles Chapman in North Camden, near a corner where two of Ms. Gilmore’s relatives were killed in 2011. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Brittany Gilmore, left, and Charles Chapman in North Camden, near a corner where two of Ms. Gilmore’s relatives were killed in 2011. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

But not in Camden, where changes have been openly received and are taking hold within the department.

“The old police mantra was make it home safely,” said Tyrrell Bagby, 25, an affable second-generation Camden police officer. “Now we’re being taught not only should we make it home safely, but so should the victim and the suspect.” Officer Bagby has saved 22 lives since joining the force in 2014 by administering naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses.

An early sign that Chief Thomson’s message was taking hold among his officers came on Nov. 9, 2015, when a 48-year-old man walked into a Crown Fried Chicken, behaved menacingly toward customers and employees, brandished a steak knife and left. Outside, officers ordered him to drop the knife, according to video from police body cameras. But the man began walking away, slashing the knife through the air as he went.

For several minutes, the officers formed a cordon around the man and walked with him for a few blocks, trying to clear traffic ahead and periodically instructing him to drop the knife.

The crisis ended when the man did just that. Had the episode taken place a year before, “we would more than likely have deployed deadly force and moved on,” Chief Thomson said.

The chief said he had stressed to his officers that the department “does not treat repositioning as retreating,” and that backing up to put a car between a suspect and an officer “is not an act of cowardice.”

Few videos like it have emerged in the annals of American policing.

Another lifesaving initiative in Camden, actually a mandate, is for officers to drive gunshot victims to a hospital if waiting for an ambulance would cause a delay. The policy, known as “scoop and go,” was modeled after a longstanding Philadelphia policy. But in much of the country, officers view picking up victims as the ambulance crews’ job.

Sgt. Angel Nieves, 45, a 17-year Camden officer, said the policy “stunned” him when it was put into effect in November 2015. He had been taught to “keep your distance — you don’t know what these guys have,” alluding to H.I.V.

Chief J. Scott Thomson in his office, and an officer during de-escalation training with a woman carrying a knife. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Chief J. Scott Thomson in his office, and an officer during de-escalation training with a woman carrying a knife. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Then he thought of “what happened in places like Ferguson,” where officers had left Mr. Brown’s body on the street, provoking outrage. “In light of what happened there,” he said, “any department that doesn’t go with a ‘scoop and go’ policy is just asking for it” — that is, asking for trouble.

Chief Thomson, 45, who leads the department of 400 officers, is president of a prominent police research group and has emerged as a significant voice in American policing.

But he is an unlikely reformer. A Camden officer since 1994, he became chief in 2008 mainly because he was next in a fast-moving line. The department had gone through five chiefs in five years.

“They looked at me and said, ‘Well, he looks like he won’t get indicted in the next six months — he’ll do,” Chief Thomson recalled.

The force was, he said, “apathetic, lethargic and corrupt,” and yet still the “most effective government agency in Camden.”

The city, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, was once a manufacturing powerhouse — this is where Campbell’s invented condensed soup in a can and where RCA built many of the nation’s first television sets. But the city fell into a long decline.

Today there are glimmers of optimism. The Philadelphia 76ers opened a training facility here, and a few major companies are moving to Camden. But it is still a contender for the poorest and most dangerous city in America.

Grandmothers warn children, “Play in the streets, die in the streets.” The streets are not meant as a metaphor. Just being outside is considered dangerous.

Officer Dennis Smarth on a Camden corner where drug activity has been common. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Officer Dennis Smarth on a Camden corner where drug activity has been common. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

A Roman Catholic nun in Camden, Sister Helen Cole of Guadalupe Family Services, a social services agency, periodically hears from suburban friends offering to donate bicycles. “I don’t take them, because our kids in this community, they will not ride bikes outside,” she said.

The number of homicides in Camden has dropped significantly since 2012, when the city recorded 67, the most on record; last year, the total was 44. In 2013, the remnants of the Camden force — half had been laid off — were disbanded. A new department was formed, again with Chief Thomson at its helm. It was a maneuver that lowered salaries and pension obligations. It allowed the chief to bring on new officers and a new culture.

The improvements in public safety since then are particularly strong in North Camden, a neighborhood 10 blocks long and about that many wide, full of single-family homes, many long abandoned. Addicts from the suburbs often drove there to buy heroin from street dealers.

In 2013, police officers were sent to walk patrols in the neighborhood for 12 hours. They were told to knock on doors and introduce themselves. If they needed to use a bathroom, they had better make some friends. The city razed abandoned homes. Drug dealers were arrested or pushed indoors or out of the neighborhood. Initially, at least, residents were discouraged from congregating outdoors.

In interviews, several residents who had been stopped by the police, or even arrested, grudgingly conceded that things were better.

“Metro came out beasting — they locked everybody up,” recalled Tee Tee Nobles, 28.

Since then, however, he has felt it safe enough to let his daughters, ages 8 and 2, run around outdoors. Before, he said, “you don’t let them outside.”