In reality, Camden’s police restructuring was deeply undemocratic and involved a doubling-down on “broken windows” policing strategies that increased excessive-force complaints. It was only tireless efforts from local activists and watchdogs that eventually pressured the new police force to adopt a new force policy requiring officers to avoid escalation, training them to do so and requiring them to intercede if another officer was incorrectly using force. It is this local activism — not disbanding the police force — that is the key to understanding the gains made in Camden.
Misinterpreting crime statistics — and ignoring historical context — can produce catastrophic policy blunders. That’s why it’s important to look more carefully at how police reforms actually work.
For example, during the 1990s, violent crime in New York dropped 56 percent and nonviolent crime dropped 65 percent. At the time, the gains were attributed to the broken windows approach to policing advocated by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) (elected in 1993), which theorized that cracking down on small infractions would lead to lower incidence of more serious crimes. Because of New York’s prominence, Giuliani’s claims had a major effect on police strategies across the country, as many other cities adopted the approach.
Years later, however, these claims have been contested. Crime dropped dramatically across the country over the same time period, and particularly in cities where the economy dramatically improved. New York, it turns out, was at the forefront of those changes — its unemployment decreased by a remarkable 39 percent from 1992 to 1999. A 2006 Chicago Law Review study analyzing data from five cities found that there was no evidence the broken windows strategies reduced crime in New York City.
But the damage was done. Broken windows policing became a key strategy for departments across the country, despite the fact that it led to dramatically disproportionate arrests of black and Latino people.
In other words, the oversimplification of a single high-profile case — without proper context or comparison — propagated deeply racist policies.
Which brings us to Camden.
With more than 70,000 residents, Camden’s history parallels Detroit’s on a smaller scale. As in Detroit, the city lost manufacturing from companies such as New York Shipping Company, Victor Talking Machine Co. and Campbell’s Soup, particularly in the years after World War II. “White flight” and suburbanization sped that disinvestment, leaving behind a bankrupt high-poverty city dependent on state aid since the 1980s.
Camden also features stark contradictions. While communities are pockmarked with abandoned or demolished houses, those blocks are also home to close-knit residents and a resilient cultural arts scene.
Despite this resiliency, Camden’s dependence on state aid has had vast ramifications. In 2011 and 2012, crime spiked in cities across New Jersey thanks to devastating cuts to that aid by Gov. Chris Christie (R). The cuts forced Camden to decrease its budget by 20 percent in a single year. Police officers were fired. Services were cut. And Camden lost its last library.
With the city under duress, over the objection of Camden community members, local officials partnered with Christie to enact a plan to disband the city’s police force and replace it with a regional county force. The goal was to dissolve the local police union, which would allow for a cheaper force that would enable more policing, not less.
The immediate results of the new force were negative. The new Metro Police (no other police forces in the county chose to join the “county” force) hired more police (from 268 in 2012 to 418 in 2013) and became dramatically whiter.
The new force embraced broken windows policing. In the first year of the new force, summonses for disorderly conduct shot up 43 percent. Summonses for not maintaining lights or reflectors on vehicles spiked 421 percent. Summonses for tinted car windows similarly increased 381 percent. And farcically, summonses for riding a bicycle without a bell or a light rose from three to 339. It was straight out of the Giuliani handbook.
Unsurprisingly, these moves provoked tensions between the community and the police producing a parallel rise in excessive-force complaints. These tensions were still bubbling in 2014 when a particularly harsh and disturbing arrest was caught on video with officers using violent techniques similar to the ones that killed George Floyd in Minnesota. When pressed about the incident, Camden County Public Affairs Director Dan Keashen said that an investigation showed it to be “a good arrest.”
One resident described the time period by saying, “with the new police force, we all became suspects.” Rann Miller, a Camden-born education activist, said recently that it was the “same team with new jerseys.”
Given this history, why is Camden being held up as evidence that disbanding police departments works? Because observers are repeating the mistake made with broken windows policing and misinterpreting statistics.
Yes, Camden experienced a 23 percent drop in violent crime and a 48 percent drop in nonviolent crime from 2012 to 2018. But crediting the crime reduction to the new police force is highly questionable.
First, during the same period, crime also fell in other New Jersey cities. Between 2012 and 2018, Newark saw violent crime fall 25 percent while nonviolent crime fell 40 percent. In Jersey City, the numbers were 23 percent and 14 percent. Trenton and Paterson also saw drops in violent and nonviolent crime. Among New Jersey’s comparable cities, only Elizabeth did not experience such a drop.
These drops reflected a reversion to the levels from before the austerity crisis. This is another parallel to Giuliani’s New York City where broken windows policing received credit for reducing historically high crime rates despite the drop being mirrored in other cities without broken windows policing.
Furthermore, observers in 2020 are ignoring a critical factor in Camden’s crime drop. In 2014 and 2015, the local NAACP, led by Colandus “Kelly” Francis and Darnell Hardwick, continued to highlight many of the new force’s struggles — from excessive-force spikes, to the increase in white officers, to dramatic turnover in the police force — as local activists translated the rise of the emerging Black Lives Matter movement into a push for less violent policing.
That change in policy appears to be getting modest but positive results. Use-of-force data is notoriously messy, but NJ.com’s Force Report showed Camden’s use of force decreasing about the time of these changes. (That study ran from 2012-2016.) The effect was not mirrored in other New Jersey cities, indicating that it was not a statewide effect — though some of those cities still had lower rates-of-force use even after Camden’s decrease.
Furthermore, Camden’s excessive-force complaints that had increased early in the Metro Police’s tenure have dropped 95 percent since 2014 — the peak of the Metro Police’s broken windows strategy and two years into the new force’s lifespan. The de-escalation strategies then, not the change in police forces, seem to be working to limit police violence.
What can we take from the real, messy story of Camden’s police restructuring? The disbanding of the Camden City Police Department was not a silver bullet. In fact, it was deeply anti-democratic and done with the purpose of increasing enforcement. But local activism subsequently led to new force-reduction policies. Camden is not a story of how disbanding and creating a new force magically fixes policing, it is a story of how community persistence can lead to meaningful change and how force-reduction policies can, in fact, reduce force.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece said that the police killing of George Floyd happened in Wisconsin. In reality, of course, it happened in Minnesota. The story has been corrected.