The City That Actually Got Rid of the Police

“I’d seen her do the peace symbol, you know, it’s not something I ever do. But I really thought it was appropriate,” he said. “I think everybody wanted peace.”

Wysocki wasn’t just any 50-year-old white man. He was the chief of Camden police. And as protests erupted across the country, this moment—Wysocki and the protester with their banner, peace signs and clenched fists held high—gave Americans reason to think its widening social fractures really could be healed.

Behind that image is a years-long story of how Camden officials transformed policing in a city where the murder rate was once on par with Honduras. The police were despised by residents for being ineffective at best and corrupt at worst. Today, violent crime in the city has decreased, and police officers are a regular presence at community block parties.

As a movement grows in American cities and suburbs to overhaul police departments and confront their long records of racially unjust, violent enforcement, Camden is one rare—and complicated—success story, a city that really did manage to overhaul its police force and change how it operated. And it took a move as radical and controversial as what some activists are calling for today: Camden really did abolish its police department.

And then the city set about rebuilding the police force with an entirely new one under county control, using the opportunity to increase the number of cops on the streets and push through a number of now-heralded progressive police reforms. And with time, the changes started to stick in a department that just years earlier seemed unfixable.

Over the past two weeks, Camden has become an example of reform that works—cited in articles, tweets and on network shows as an example of what can go right. And it’s true that the reforms produced real change in the statistics: The excessive use of force rates plummeted. The homicide rate decreased. And new incentives laid the groundwork for a completely new understanding of what it meant to be a good cop.

“You had to change the underlying principles of the way police officers were being trained and taught, and the culture in the department,” said former Governor Chris Christie, who supported the changes in Camden. “The most effective way to do that was to start over.”

The reforms carry lessons for what it takes to transform the police in any city. They ultimately amounted to nothing less than a reboot of the culture of policing in Camden, changing the way every beat cop in the city did his or her job. And they also required enough political will at the top—all the way to the governor—to survive opposition from police unions and some residents. The case of Camden shows that if there’s enough motivation to blow it all up and start over from both the top and the bottom, reforming a police force is achievable.

But nothing is as simple as it sounds in a tweet. While largely a success story, the overhaul was by no means a clear win for social-justice progressives who are driving the police-reform debate nationally. The Camden police reform was—and remains—politically divisive. In part that was because union contracts were thrown out, leaving many on the force earning a lower salary and with fewer benefits. And it required very strange bedfellows to succeed—an all-powerful Democratic machine, a Republican governor, conservative budget-cutters and progressive police thinkers, all aligned to break an established department and start over.

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