By Mike Schneider
This is Camden. And this is a crime in progress. Police say the men in the middle of the screen in the video are drug dealers. But their dealing is about to be interrupted. Watch those two men moving toward them. They’ve got guns and a goal. The money those alleged drug dealers have pocketed. It’s the gunmen force their victims to the ground in a short, brutal encounter that doesn’t surprise some of the people who live here.
“This is ghetto, man, ghetto,” said a resident.
“It’s dangerous on the streets. It is rough,” said another resident.
But let’s go back to the crime scene, because in the midst of the mayhem, signs of progress. And it comes with lights and sirens and badges. Watch the first police officer chase down the gunmen, and when backup arrives, they get their men.
“And all the while we are talking to them and we are telling them that up on your right you have two guys with guns. The officer now is able to zero in on them and we get both of them and their guns,” said Chief Scott Thomson in the command center.
Criminals in Camden are just starting to learn that they are now being watched. The police command post is filled with screens that are connected to surveillance cameras all over the city. If something suspicious is going on, someone here can see it. When reports came in about an armed man barricaded in a house, the cameras caught Camden’s SWAT team responding to the scene.
“On a national average, if a person calls 911 and asks for help, it takes nine minutes for an officer to respond. Our response time is less than 90 seconds here,” Thomson said.
Thomson is chief of the Camden County Police, and used to command the city police force that was disbanded last year. He’s a local guy who rose up through the ranks and sees good police work as a way to save his city.
“When we started the transition there was obvious expectations of being able to immediately express crime. The reality is that we basically had the same amount of officers as before. We have been able to statistically drive down crime, a third, and more importantly gun violence is down over 30 percent,” Thomson said.
But just roll out through the streets of Camden, and you see how much work needs to be done. The crime rate, and poverty rate, have been among the highest in the country for years. And in some sections of town, a badge offers little protection to those enforcing the law.
“Up there, they try to fight you, their families come out into the street,” said Police Sgt. Brandon Kersey.
Whn you walk around the streets of Camden there is a sense of growth going on here, infrastructure improvements like new gas and water lines, new townhouses going up, but when you talk to the people you get a sense of mixed feelings from them. They are filled with hope that things will be better but there is also a sense that they kind of doubt themselves.
“It is just the mentality of the people of the city of Camden. They have to realize that the city is only going to do so much” said a resident.
Those feelings come as no surprise to Camden’s mayor.
“I think there have been so many failed plans in the past that the people have become skeptic. When you have officers that have come out from behind the desk and now they are out in the streets, engaged, not just in a positive aspects but letting the criminals know that behaviors of the past will not be tolerated in the present day and future,” said Mayor Dana Redd.
“We’ve increased the number of officers from 230 to what will be 411 this summer. It is a significant difference. We have police officers walking in neighborhoods in Camden City. We have not seen an officer walking the beat in decades. We have cops that knock on doors during the daylight hours and introduce themselves to the people and inquire from the residents what has been negatively defining their lives for years and work with them to address the things that are most important ,” said Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr.
Camden’s got some big things going for it. Hospitals, universities and the corporate headquarters of Campbell’s Soup, which is deeply involved in redevelopment efforts. Waterfront revitalization is well underway. And the state has moved in to reform a school district that many called a failure.
But none of that may matter, until the streets you see on these screens get a lot safer.