“Just about everything under the sun happened in North Camden. It was dangerous as a kid, going out here,” said Officer Vidal Rivera.
But driving through the streets of the Camden neighborhood, it’s evident the tide is beginning to turn. Since the reorganization of Camden’s police force in 2013 and an influx of economic investments, crime statistics are on a steady decline. The poverty rate is the lowest in 10 years.
“One of the things that helps us significantly from a public safety perspective is the investment into the youth, through education and economic opportunities. From a policing perspective, nothing stops a bullet like a job,” said Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson.
In fact, the homicide rate for Camden city is at a 30-year low, a year-to-year decline of 48 percent, according to department data. Dropping from 44 homicides in 2016 to 23 in 2017, overall crime is down 34 percent since the department changes.
“We went from our internal performance measurements of how many arrests you made and tickets you wrote, to how many kids are riding their bikes and people are sitting on their front steps. That’s the charge to every officer when they leave this building every day,” said Thomson.
“Growing up out here, I barely could ride my bike because it was so dangerous. My mother feared of it,” said Rivera.
Officers Rivera and Tyrrell Bagby both grew up in Camden. As they walked the beat, they said it’s their mission to leave it better than days past.
“Abandoned structures are one of the things we like to pay attention to during the inclement weather. Whether it’s snowing, raining or very cold, a lot of homeless individuals who live throughout the city will break into the dwellings, and that can cause some safety issues because it’s not structurally sound, or if it’s cold they could start some fires,”said Bagby.
“The problems that have plagued our cities for decades are not going to be fixed by arresting your way out of the problem,” said Thomson. “When we finally made the switch to officers being more guardians than warriors, we were able to coalesce neighborhoods, become facilitators and empower people to leave their homes.”
Thomson says that’s enabled the department to hit tipping points in public safety. His force is better educated, better armed and communicating with neighbors to get out in front of crime.
According to the chief, they’ve doubled their efforts with foot patrol and turned around a section of North Camden that was considered ground zero about four to five years ago for heroin and other drug dealers.
“It’s progress, it’s not success. We’re happy with the trajectory we’re on, but we’re not waving a flag of victory by any stretch of the imagination,” Thomson said.
He says they’re rounding a corner in the race, but not yet near the finish line.