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New Police Force From Scratch: N.J. City Proves It's Possible To Reform The Police


In cities across the country, big and small, there are a few protest chants uniting the crowds that are demanding an end to police brutality. They include, no justice, no peace; say his name, George Floyd; and this one - defund the police, a version of which happened in Camden, N.J., in 2013.

Camden's homicide rate was through the roof, and there were scores of excessive-force complaints. So Camden's mayor and city council dissolved the city's police force and created a new one from scratch. Joining us now to talk about what that was like and what happened next is Scott Thomson, who served as chief of police on Camden's new force from 2013 to 2019.

Scott Thomson, welcome.

SCOTT THOMSON: Hi, Mary Louise. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Just paint us, briefly, a picture of what that moment was. What was happening then that caused the mayor and the city council to say, you know, we got to do this; the only way forward is disband the police department, start over?

THOMSON: Well, at the time - 2012 into early 2013 - there was a public safety crisis in the city of Camden. Our murder rate was 18 times the national average. We were seeing crime rates that were exceeding that of third-world country.

So there was a bold political initiative to essentially hit the reset button. And in 2013, every single Camden city police officer, including myself, was fired. And a good majority were hired over to the county police force. But we all had to fill out a 50-page application, retake a psychological, retake a physical and go through an interview process.

KELLY: And give me an example of - since you said you and many of the other police officers were the existing police department that then became the new police department. How different was it? Can you give me an example of something that changed in the way the force interacted with the community?

THOMSON: You know, it really started with being able to build culture as opposed to change culture, and we were able to create an organization wherein the identity of the officer was that of a guardian and not a warrior. I was able to change the entire performance metric system within the organization that did not measure a police officer's performance by the number of arrests that they made, but rather, what were the outcomes as opposed to the outputs? When I drove down city streets, I wanted to see little kids riding their bicycles in front of their homes, and I wanted to see people sitting on their front steps.

We changed the entire structure of the organization. We changed the entire reward system within the organization, and we put them out there in - on street corners and said, we don't want you to lock anybody up. We don't want you to write any tickets. We want you to be out here and talk to the people. Let them get to know you, and you get to know them.

KELLY: Was there a downside? You came up through the traditional system of practices. Did you feel like you lost anything by getting rid of a more traditional police force, more traditional practices?

THOMSON: No. As a matter of fact, I experienced a maturation in my time as a police officer and as a police chief, and I was an expert practitioner in failed police policies. And every day, we used to come to work, and we thought that we could reduce drug dealing and gang activity by locking up drug dealers. And we would put together teams. We would swoop in. We would do heavy enforcement.

And essentially, all we were really doing was revictimizing the people that lived within a community and (inaudible) opportunities for other criminals to come in and (inaudible) behind that which we were removing. We were doing everything from a proactive perspective and doing it completely unilateral from the community in and of itself. We didn't have their permission. We didn't have their consent. So we didn't have legitimacy.

KELLY: I want to note that homicides in Camden have gone way down since these changes, since 2012. So have excessive-force complaints, I understand. Do you attribute that to this new way of policing, and how can you know? I mean, how can you separate it out from other forces that may have been in play already?

THOMSON: So when you have a very low solve rate in your murders, that essentially is an indicator of having very poor levels of communication with your community and very low levels of trust. We went from having a solve rate of 16% in 2012 to 61% in 2014. So by increasing the level of human contact with the people in the community, we were able to glean more information so that we could make the community safer for them and with them.

We led the state of New Jersey in 2012 with 65 excessive-force complaints. Last year, we had three excessive-force complaints. So that's a 95% reduction. And we have body cameras on all of our police officers.

KELLY: So what is your reaction to the calls we're hearing now - protesters calling on cities to abolish their police forces, to not have a police department at all? These are people arguing that if you start from scratch with a new police force like y'all did in Camden, that still isn't enough because there's still all of the racist systems within which that force is operating. What's your response?

THOMSON: So that's a bit extreme. I don't see a democratic society wherein you could completely eliminate a police force. I do think that there are some serious conversations that can happen with regards to defunding police. There are greater public safety returns on investment with programs other than putting money towards enforcement.

KELLY: You mean take some funding that's currently going to a police force; aim that into other places so that the police can focus on policing. Is that the argument you're making?

THOMSON: Well, that's exactly - I mean, look. I would have traded 10 cops for another Boys & Girls Club. But the system needs to change as far as having police respond to incidents such as mental illness. Police are not equipped. They're not trained. They're not specialized in that. But yet it continues to get delegated to them.

So I think if we changed the expectation of police and did not have them intersecting with community as frequently as it is in areas where they don't have expertise, I think that the tension on some of these issues could certainly lower. If you put the money towards having specialists handle these situations, I think cops would actually appreciate that.

KELLY: So as you survey this moment in our country in which everything playing out involving questions over police and excessive force - what goes through your mind - or let me ask it a slightly different way. What words of advice, as somebody who's been through trying to make significant changes in your force - what words of advice would you have for other people leading and overseeing police departments in America today?

THOMSON: How I want to see police respond is I don't want to see us circle the wagons. If you can't turn on any channel and see the public response to this and understand that in a democratic society, a police is only effective if it has the consent of the people - and to have the consent of the people, you have to be legitimate.

So as a police leader, I say, what is the harm with giving them voice, allowing them to come in and be a part of the process? And all the while, it gives us the ability to have the dialogue and the education in both directions of how difficult and challenging situations can be better resolved.

KELLY: Scott Thomson - he was chief of police for Camden, N.J., from 2013 until last year.

Scott Thomson, thank you very much.

THOMSON: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.