With the nation’s attention now intensely focused on racial inequality and the systemic history of problematic policing, “defund the police” has become a new rallying cry for advocates pushing for reform.
Already, as Minneapolis and other cities weigh the move, people on both sides of the issue are pointing to examples of success and failure, looking to find data points — or worse yet, fears — to argue why defunding police could either be a good idea, or a terrible one.
And that debate has quickly brought to light the shining example and metamorphosis of policing in Camden, New Jersey, a city that was once among the nation’s most dangerous with a homicide rate equivalent to that of El Salvador before a funding upheaval and list of reforms resulted in the lowest murder rate the town had seen since 1987. Add to the fact that local police have accomplished as much with a noted drop in use of lethal force and the viral image of its Chief of Police marching hand-in-hand with protesters, and it’s easy to see why people are quick to look to replicate it.
— Camden County Police (@CamdenCountyPD) May 31, 2020
But digging deeper into how Camden was able to spark its amazing transformation reveals that substantive police reform has never been as simple as an issue of funding.
First, it’s worth defining “defunding the police” as policymakers are debating it. Despite some opponents fear mongering with scenes from the movie “The Purge,” in which all crimes are made legal for a 12-hour period, the policy has more to do with allocating a city’s funding away from policing and more towards efforts that might reduce the need for policing, such as mental health resources, public education, or employee training programs. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently summarized, “what it means is [with] the resources that we have, let us spend it in a way that gives the most protection for the American people — protection for their safety, protection for their rights.”
Second, it’s worth understanding the realities that protests following the death of George Floyd have fought to shine a light on. Mainly, that Americans of color are more likely to be stopped by police, and more likely to have police use lethal force against them than white Americans. As New York City data showed during the peak of its notorious stop and frisk policy, for example, blacks were stopped by police at roughly eight-times the rate of whites. And as Americans chant the names of George Floyd, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other black Americans who have died at the hands of police, data from Mapping Police Violence shows black Americans are three-times more likely to be killed than white Americans.
In Camden, the latter issue has been at the forefront of its shift in policing since crime reached its peak in 2012. The following year, the city sought to put more cops on the street, but due to budgetary constraints wound up disbanding the city’s police force and created a county community force instead. The move let the city shed costs by ridding itself of unionized police that cost $182,168 on average with benefits, in favor of hiring back holdovers and new recruits as non-unionized county employees at $99,605 per officer, according to county statistics.
While the move doesn’t necessarily equate to “defunding” police as it’s being discussed today in a perfect sense, what ensued in Camden was more parallel to the thesis, as more resources were allowed to be shifted to other community building initiatives in the following years. Education reform and workplace development programs boosted the local economy and a more than $8 million dollar program to remove blighted and abandoned properties helped eliminate areas once used by drug dealers.
‘Progressive use of force policy’
As that change was unfolding, more community policing reforms were being instituted by its police chief. Training exercises on de-escalation became the norm and officers were outfitted with body cameras. In 2019, the police force teamed up with the ACLU and New York University’s Policing Project to codify the rules it had been operating with, including mandating that force only be used as a last resort and mandating that other officers intervene to stop unnecessary use of force.
“We came up with what we believe is a very progressive use of force policy,” Camden Chief of Police Joseph Wysocki told Yahoo Finance’s YFi PM. “One of the biggest things you want to do is [establish] the duty to intervene. We’re dealing with individuals and human beings. Our police officers are not Robocop. Sometimes you aren’t perfect, but it’s the other officers that have to look out for you.”
As the Director of NYU’s Policing Project Barry Friedman explains, rules like the ones instituted by Camden police that require officers to intervene against use of force could’ve prevented the inaction on the part of the other three Minneapolis officers charged in the death of George Floyd as the fourth held his knee against Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The Camden policy also notably bans chokeholds.
“I think you see a lot less use of force and a lot fewer injuries when you institute those changes,” Friedman said, adding that it also makes it easier on prosecutors looking to hold officers accountable for violating policy after the fact. “You’ll have a much better chance on the back-end if you have a much stronger front-end.”
In a similar vein, calls to “defund the police” could be seen as an even more pre-emptive push to solve what’s seen as a system perpetuating racism and inequality even before the “front-end” of policing. As was the case in Camden, defunding or disbanding its police force represented a radical call to action to start anew with fresh policy, and importantly, an understanding that resources might be better spent elsewhere in the community. That was, after all, the spark that lit Camden’s reform. Without it, perhaps the established unionized police force in place would not have accepted the shift toward community policing and a reduction of force.
It’s worth noting, however, that Camden’s county police force eventually unionized after disbanding the city’s prior unionized police force, and its operating costs have soared. Camden budgeted $68.45 million for police this year, accounting for nearly a third of the city’s overall budget. An internal state analysis cited by the Philadelphia Inquirer notes that its police spending “compels the contraction of other vital city departments and services.”
There is no arguing with the scenes on the ground, though, which was very much delivered on the goal at the outset in shifting Camden’s police force from “warriors” of the community to “guardians” of the community. Complaints of excessive force have come down 95% since 2014, according to the department’s own metrics, and unlike violent protests across the Delaware River in Philadelphia last week, Camden enjoyed shared, peaceful protests between police and demonstrators.