LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

In Camden, violent crime down and community engagement up

BY Briana Vannozzi, Correspondent |

“You have to put that knife down. Think you can do that for me?” said Camden County Sgt. Christopher Sarlo.

Camden County Police officers are role playing. It’s part of scenario-based training called ICAT. In this situation they’re talking a hypothetical veteran with PTSD out of using a knife to hurt herself or the officers. And they succeed.

“If you look at over the last seven to eight years we’ve gone from really at one point in time being one of the most studied police departments in the state and country for what not to do, to the actions of the men and women being held up as an example. And it’s something to be very proud of,”  said Camden County Police Department Chief Scott Thomson.

Camden has garnered national attention for police reform, deploying innovative tactics and restructuring the rank and file. Officers from around the country attended a training seminar today hosted by the police executive research forum. It spotlights some of the best practices in law enforcement endorsed by some of the biggest names in policing.

“I don’t know how many of you have ever had to resort to deadly force in the course of your career. I hope you haven’t. I unfortunately have and believe me, taking a life is not easy. It is not something to be proud of. You do what you have to do, but it’s something you got to live with. And if there is a way that you can resolve a situation short of that, let me tell you from personal experience, do it,” retired Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said.

“One of the things we did last fall was to make it mandatory for the first time in the state of New Jersey, and maybe for the first time in the country, mandatory de-escalation, cultural awareness training, on a yearly basis, on a continuing basis for police all across New Jersey,” said state Attorney General Christopher Porrino.

Officers are taught de-escalation techniques, shown videos of real situations and given critical decision making skills. The protocols deal with armed suspects and the mentally ill. As a result, in Camden violent crime statistics are down and community engagement is up. The city reported nine homicides so far for 2017. That’s 65 percent less than the same time last year.

“We responded to more than 7,900 calls for service for a person illegally having a firearm. The public is reporting to us,” said Thomson.” And we’ve arrested more than 1,100 people in those incidents and we’ve only had to discharge our firearm five times.”

A Washington Post study shows nationwide nearly a thousand people were killed by police in both 2015 and 2016. This year is on track for the same, with 523 reported so far. According to the Post, a quarter of those individuals killed had a mental illness, emphasizing the need for these tactics.

At the same time, the number of officers killed in the line of duty increased this year — up to 65 from 50, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

“The chief has a great line that I heard, which is good law enforcement is not the absence of criminal conduct, it’s the presence of justice. And you are the ones to our communities who bring that justice,” said Acting U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, William Fitzpatrick.

The mantra today was options. As Thomson put it, this isn’t check-the-box-training. This is about creating a culture on de-escalation.