Crime in Camden is down from its peak nine years ago. Since then the city’s scandal ridden police department has been disbanded, replaced by a newly created county force which quickly instituted new policies to rebuild the community’s trust, curb gang violence and deter drug trafficking. But it’s still a too violent town. Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Williams: What’s your biggest challenge?
Thomson: Well, our biggest challenge is to not allow the success that we’ve had thus far be something we want to rest our laurels upon. We’ve been able to make some tremendous strides in a very short period of time, but we still have a lot more work to do. And what it’s really contingent upon, the success that we’ve been able to have, is the empowerment of the people within the community so they can reclaim their neighborhoods. We have seen the quality of life in some neighborhoods just change drastically and now little kids can ride their bikes in front of their homes and people can walk to the corner store.
Williams: And that has to do with community policing that you instituted, right?
Thomson: Well, so community policing for us is not just a unit or a program. It’s a philosophy. It’s the culture of the organization. And it’s really, the foundation of it, is treating people with respect and dignity and empowering them. And we serve more as conveners and facilitators and when we operate as community builders, crime will be reduced.
Williams: People know the police on the beat? They’re walking beats? They’re in the neighborhoods, right? So tell me this. Was the ice cream your idea?
Thomson: The ice cream truck was an idea that the command staff, we had started making some tremendous strides in neighborhoods with rebuilding trust where there really was none for quite some time.
Williams: Right. So when police cars show up at a park, generally people would scatter. But you guys came with free ice cream.
Thomson: Nothing captures the hearts and minds of people like free ice cream, I can tell you that. Yes, it’s done… We do pop up barbecues where we’re giving hamburgers and hot dogs. There are challenged communities here. And sometimes, it’s a food desert as well and we’re working to fix that but when an officer shows up there, we want to be seen more as just in moments of enforcement or moments of crisis. And that’s where we’re starting to build trust.
Williams: To what extent does poverty breed violence?
Thomson: Well, you know, that’s a deep question, more of a sociological answer. But, you know, the poverty is a driver to a lot of the things that end up manifesting themselves in acts of violence. You know, one of the things we see in the city here is we have a tremendous amount of acts of domestic violence that occurs. So our crime statistics may look as though the streets are unsafe when the reality, a lot of our aggravated assaults are occurring inside living rooms. And some of that is driven by unemployment. Some of that’s driven by poverty. Some of that’s driven by addiction.
Williams: What is the next important step to take to curb that?
Thomson: Which one, right? The fact of the matter is in a town with the challenges we have here, nothing stops a bullet like a job. And you have a three-legged stool right now in that we’re trying to make communities safer, we’re addressing the educational system and we’re providing opportunity with $2.5 dollars of redevelopment that’s coming into this city.
Williams: OK, thank you very much for being with us Chief Thomson.
Thomson: Thank you for having me Mary Alice.