NEW YORK — In 2013, as police chief of Camden, New Jersey, J. Scott Thomson gave Camden Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan, a tour of the city.
That was when Camden was experiencing homicides at a higher rate than Honduras, then known as the murder capital of the world. Camden was competing for the crime capital of America and, by most accounts, was a winner of the dubious title.
Bishop Sullivan reached into his pocket and presented the chief with a rosary blessed by the pope.
“You will need this more than I will,” Thomson remembers the bishop saying.
Thomson left the Camden force last year and is now an executive fellow with the National Police Foundation and director of security for Holtec International, a supplier of equipment for energy companies.
Amid nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, which has prompted many to call for a defunding of police, Thompson shared the story of a turnaround in the Camden police force with the National Catholic Reporter, a national newspaper based in Kansas City, Missouri.
Camden went further than defunding police. In 2013, it disbanded its entire force, which had a reputation for corruption, brutality and high absenteeism. The city force was fired, replaced by a county-run operation led by Thomson, a Camden native who was the chief of the old city force. He was joined by about half of the former force who were rehired and supplemented by new recruits. The old police union contract was thrown out.
Because of budget cuts, some 46% of the force had been disbanded in a single day in 2011. Radical action to create a new force, agreed to by local Democratic politicians and New Jersey’s then-Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, didn’t materialize immediately. Far from it. In 2012, Camden hit its nadir, with a murder rate more than 18 times the U.S. average, Thomson wrote in a recent op-ed in The Washington Post daily newspaper. The city had more murders than the states of Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire and Wyoming combined, he noted, citing FBI statistics.
The next year, the chief of the new, embattled force gave new recruits a speech.
“You will have an identity that will be more Peace Corps than Special Forces,” he said. Recruits attracted to the job by the opportunity to crack heads or bully others would be fired immediately, he told them.
Today, Thomson is a frequently sought-after interview subject to recount the Camden police changes, called on for more than 300 interviews from around the world, including The New York Times, National Public Radio and media outlets as far away as China and New Zealand.
He cautions that the Camden story is not a miracle, but the result of a conscious change in policing strategy intended to make the police more visible while enlisting the support of the embattled citizenry.
“For every action, there’s a reaction,” he told NCR in a recent interview, careful not to overstate Camden’s story. “Nobody is saying that Camden is a utopia or that the Police Department is without sin. It’s not a success. It’s progress.”
Camden still has a story to tell to a nation torn apart by issues of crime and police violence. Effective crime fighting, said Thomson, involves both community support and police presence. He told his cops to get out into the streets, play ball with the kids, get to know the neighborhoods. Broadway, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, was flooded with police, and the most blatant forms of open-air daylight drug dealing were pushed underground.
Meanwhile, the police instituted ice cream trucks and block parties and officers made a point of knocking on doors to introduce themselves.
“We pivoted. There are moments to celebrate,” said Thomson.
The count of 67 murders in 2012 — a figure memorialized at Camden’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in an annual year-end vigil — dropped to 25 last year, according to the Uniform Crime Reports of the New Jersey State Police.
The results are seen not only in the numbers but in the vibe of the city, which is 94% racial minority with more than a third of households living in poverty, according to Data USA.
People in Camden didn’t want to eliminate police, they wanted to change them. “What they wanted was not fewer police, but they wanted us to behave differently,” Thompson said.
The newly formed Camden police were told not to focus on arrests or tickets. Instead, they were asked to be a visible presence in the neighborhoods.
Thomson said the approach reinforced the presence of people in the community who were more willing to venture out into the streets. In turn, they became the eyes and ears of the police, willing to talk to officers they knew. Gone were massive dragnets of young men when a violent incident occurred, actions that often generated resentment and standoffishness toward the authorities.
Thomson described it as fishing with a spear rather than a net. Murders in Camden were once resolved at a 16% rate, he said, and they now are resolved over 60% of the time. “The people were telling us things. That made us much smarter.”
Much of the drug trade was moved underground. For Thomson, curbing the open-air drug dealing may be the most police can be expected to achieve.
A visit from President Barack Obama in 2015 highlighted Camden’s successes. Now there is massive international media attention, attracted by the hope that the city’s police have unlocked the key to curtailing crime while earning the community’s respect.
Amid all this attention, Thomson said he keeps in mind the role of his Catholic faith. Police work, he said, is his vocation, a helping profession. When he worked for the police department, he often consulted with chaplain Msgr. Michael Mannion.
“The spirituality aspect of the work was extremely important to keep a reminder of why you do what you do every day,” he said.
Thomson combined community policing with his own faith, once acting as a godfather for a Camden boy blinded after a shootout between drug dealers.
He is the product of Catholic schools from elementary school to college and said his faith is an essential part of his police vocation.
The work is stressful, he said, adding: “You fail more than you succeed. When you see little kids murdered, it will take a toll on you if you don’t have a strong faith to rely on.”
A national police study he contributed to included a main principle right out of Catholic social teaching on the sanctity of human life, he said.
Msgr. Michael Doyle, the longtime pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Camden, is proud to note that the former chief still has a picture of his kindergarten graduation at the parish school, a picture the two reenacted 40 years later.
The priest came to Sacred Heart in 1968, an era when he was active in civil rights and anti-war efforts. He listened as Robert Kennedy campaigned there in part to highlight the plight of troubled urban centers. Msgr. Doyle has been identified with Camden ever since being profiled for his ministry for an early edition of television’s “60 Minutes.”
Thomson offered a breath of fresh air to the city, said Msgr. Doyle. “He changed the whole tone of police behavior,” he said, noting that Camden police began creating an ethos of respect for others that helped cut the city’s crime rate.
For Thomson, the proof of success is in the small things. Parents being able to sit on the stoops of their houses watching their children play, is a big victory. And the fact that Camden has remained relatively calm during the current period of unrest is also testimony to improved police-community relations.
No one would say that battered Camden is a verdant utopia. Thomson keeps his papal rosary handy. But change is worth celebrating, he said.
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Feuerherd is news editor of National Catholic Reporter. He was director of communications for the Camden Diocese from 2010-2015.