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What Seattle could learn from Camden, NJ remaking their police force

Seattle police at protests over the weekend in Seattle. (Getty Images)

There’s been much talk on police reform and what happens if you actually decide to abolish the police. As you’ve probably heard, Camden, New Jersey, did just that. Freeholder Louis Cappelli was part of that effort and joined Seattle’s Morning News to explain how it worked.

“While we demolished the police force, we were also in the process of creating a new one. We demolished the old Camden City police force at a time when the city was in a fiscal crisis in 2012 and also a public safety crisis in 2012. We had 67 murders back then, a murder rate higher than some third-world nations,” he said.

“So we worked together with the governor and state Legislature to create a new county department that replaced the city department. So everybody from the city department was fired. Most of them are given an opportunity to work with the new department. But with the new department, we had a new set of rules, regulations, contracts that made it a much easier task.”

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Camden is a suburb of Philadelphia, and the population served by the county police department is approximately 74,000. Cappelli says they adopted a model more in line with community policing and needs. So what was the biggest change after the new system was put in place?

“The biggest change is that we have been developing trust with the residents being served by the department. So the city department had kind of an ‘us versus them’ mentality with the residents of the city. Our force is the direct opposite. We’re knocking on doors, introducing ourselves, walking the beat, riding bikes,” he said.

“It takes time to build trust. So there are no overnight solutions, but over time when you combine that with ice cream parties for children, reading in schools, pop-up block parties, movie family nights … that partnership between the residents and the police is really what has helped us drive down crime tremendously in the city.”

How much time did it take?

“It’s an ongoing process. It’s not mission accomplished by any means. We still have our challenges, but our murder rate is down 70%, crimes down over 40%.”

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What suggestions would he have for other police departments who are going through this process? Is this the way to go, or is this uniquely suited to Camden, New Jersey, and nowhere else?

“When we formed this department, we formed a task force of city residents and city neighborhood leaders to get their input on what the department should do, how they should act with residents, and what they were looking for with police officers, so you need input from the community,” he said.

“Number two: You need to start with the philosophy that you need to gain the trust of residents in order to be a successful police department, and you have to value the sanctity of life. So if you start with that philosophy, and then put that philosophy into practice through some model of community policing that’s appropriate for your city, I think you will see a lot of progress.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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