With so much talk of defunding or disbanding entire police forces, a notion gaining steam in Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd, it may surprise people to know that the idea is not a new one.
In fact, it happened in New Jersey somewhat recently.
Back in 2013, the city of Camden did away with the police department, with a renewed focus on community service. Now with protests raging across the country, people are asking: Has the experiment worked?
If judging by the optics over the past week or so – where cities like New York and Philadelphia have seen police vehicles burned and looters taking advantage at the height of the unrest – Camden has been relatively calm. The city has seen nothing like what major cities have, with the Camden police chief instead marching with the protesters, not gearing up to square off with them.
Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli says the relative harmony between police and community is a result of the city taking the radical step seven years ago to disband the police force – tearing up union contracts and replacing the department with a larger county police force more focused on neighborhood patrol and respect.
“Our officers are guardians, they’re not warriors,” Cappelli said. “The difference is significant. We now have three times as many officers on the street, we have a model of community policing that was formed with the input of the residents of the city. We have a much safer city.”
Camden’s community policing model has drawn praise even from former President Barack Obama. But even so, some Camden residents fear the good press has gone too far. Longtime activists Pastor Amir Kahn and Kevin Benson said there was one obvious tradeoff as a result: When the city disbanded the police department and replaced it with county cops, the police force became more white.
“If the Camden city police department had what the Camden County police department has now, it would’ve been just as successful and you wouldn’t have had most the individuals coming from the outside,” Kahn said. “Camden city police force was a lot of community people. It was black and brown, it was people who look like me. But now what you have is a new police force, which is majority white.”
Benson said that there has been “a lot of resentment” regarding the decision for the county to take over the policing, saying that the “residents did not want that.”
But even some critics applaud Camden police brass for being receptive to community dialogue. Nonetheless, this past weekend some protesters asked police leaders to not march with them, and give them space for their own demonstration.
“The first protest in Camden, it felt like a symbol, or something,” said one of the organizers, Ayinde Merrill. “It felt too staged.”
At the end of the weekend’s demonstration in Camden, leaders of the protest handed the police chief a list of demands. Like in many other cities, one of them was to divert more police department budgetary funds to social programs for people of color.