Can you guess what happened when the city of Camden NJ “defunded their police department” in 2013?
If you’ve been listening to right-wing media, you might be thinking something like the following:
You can’t just defund a police department! Who is going to protect you from criminals? Violent anarchists will take over! Dogs and cats living together!
But that’s just propaganda designed to stir up FUD. Virtually nobody is saying that they want to eliminate law enforcement entirely. Instead, they want to reform it (as in “to form anew”) into something better. What happened in Camden is instructive.
At the time, Camden had become synonymous with crime and was considered among the deadliest cities in the U.S. After a rise in homicides in 2012, the city had wanted more officers patrolling the streets, but couldn’t afford to hire them.
Camden’s murder rate was 18 times the national average, and things were going downhill. Their only hope was to try something new:
The following year, the city’s police department was disbanded and replaced with a new one covering Camden County that had more officers, but on lower pay, according to a City Lab report.
That’s right. After they “disbanded” the police, they actually had more police officers. Significantly, these new police were trained to not think of themselves as soldiers or warriors, using guns, tear gas, flash grenades, military equipment, and other heavy-handed (and expensive) tactics. These police were now guardians of the citizens they served.
In addition to increasing the number of officers, they worked on increasing the number of non-crisis interactions between police and residents, in order to build trust. Officers also underwent de-escalation training and got body cameras. They wrote a new use-of-force policy that requires police to use force only as a last resort.
The results were dramatic. The number of homicides dropped dramatically and crime rates went down. The solve rate for crimes went from 16% in 2012 to 61% in 2014 — just two years later. And most telling, they had a 95% reduction in excessive force complaints.
For a better picture of how this happened, listen to this short interview with Scott Thomson, who was the chief of police who oversaw the shift to community policing in Camden:
Looking forward to now, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, demonstrations in Camden remained calm. On May 30, the police chief marched alongside protesters with a sign that said “Standing in Solidarity”, and 21 other officers marched as well. The organizer of the protest said that the chief asked her for permission to join the march.
Meanwhile, just across the river in Philadelphia, protests erupted into violence, with police using tear gas and rubber bullets.
It is ironic that police in many cities are escalating violence in response to protests. This indicates that the police mistrust and fear the people they are supposed to protect. This fear leads them to think they should kill before they themselves get killed. And the vicious cycle continues.
When police instead work to build trust, it makes the community safer, which means that the police themselves are safer and have less to fear.
Finally, I think people on the left should stop saying “Defund the Police”. That just plays into right-wing media propaganda and leads to more fear. This is better described as reforming them by rethinking the role of police — “reforming and rethinking”. Democrats are on the right track with the “Justice in Policing Act“. The experience in Camden shows that this not only saves lives, it saves money. And it might just save our country.