NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, January 23rd. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: winning the battle against urban violence.
In 2012, Camden, New Jersey, had the nation’s highest per-capita murder rate. With a population of just 77,000, it had 67 murders.
REICHARD: But within five years, homicides plunged to a 30-year low. The rate has fallen by two-thirds from the peak it reached in 2012. Crimes like robbery and assault are also at their lowest levels since Camden officials started keeping statistics in 1969.
WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg recently visited Camden and she has the story of how they did it.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Camden, New Jersey sits directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Its streets overlook the shining skyline of downtown Philly.
On a snowy December morning, Camden County Police Officer Vidal Rivera patrols Camden’s streets in an SUV. Rivera was born and raised here with his mother and grandmother.
RIVERA: 3rd and Royden is like my earliest memories, but I can remember all of me just playing out around like a block over.
He says the city’s struggle with drugs and violence robbed him and other children of a normal childhood.
RIVERA: As a kid the things you would see…drug deals while you are walking to school. Drug deals while you are coming home from school. You just see fights that shouldn’t be happening between adults. We couldn’t even sit out on the front of our steps without having to worry about gunshots being rung out and having to duck for cover.
Camden wasn’t alway like that. In its heyday it was an industrial powerhouse. Campbells Soup founded and headquartered its factories here.
But in the 1970s and 80s, Camden fell on hard economic times. As crime increased, the Camden police department remained severely understaffed and ineffective.
When crime reached a record high in 2012, Camden County leaders decided to dissolve the Camden city police force and start over. The new Camden County Police Department took its place and implemented three major reforms. County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli says the first reform was restructuring the budget.
CAPPELLI: We said, this is what we want to do. This is our plan a, our plan is to go from 230 or 40 officers up to 400 officers spending the same amount of money.
With more officers, the city could actually start fighting crime, by implementing the second reform: community policing. That’s a system where officers consistently patrol a neighborhood, so they become familiar with local residents.
AUDIO: [Rivera talking to dispatcher]
Officer Vidal Rivera says Camden police now get out of their cars and walk the streets on foot patrols. At the beginning of shifts, police knock on doors and talk to residents…asking about issues in the neighborhoods and giving out their cellphone numbers.
RIVERA: It was, it was something that literally threw people off their game.
Rivera says Camden’s street corners used to be what he calls drug “flea markets.” Now, officers’ very physical presence on the streets has driven those drug dealers away.
RIVERA: Because you just never know when the officer may walk up on you in the middle of the deal. So these guys are like, I can’t take that chance anymore.
We can see evidence of the drop in Camden’s crime rates at a park in North Camden. That’s where Officer Rivera is doing his foot patrol this morning.
As Rivera walks by the park’s now-empty pool and basketball courts, he describes what it used to be like here.
RIVERA: Just imagine over a hundred people partying, drinkin and all that. And it used to be every day. I don’t care what day it was, how bad the weather was. And you had to weave your way through just to get through here just to just go for a walk if you wanted.
Today, with the cold and snow, the park’s rolling green lawn is empty… but come springtime, Rivera says it’ll be crowded for a whole new reason.
RIVERA: We have our baseball tournaments, our football tournament here. Kids use it just to hang out. We’ve had people work out here and do the group session workouts on Saturdays when the weather’s nice. So it was a complete turnaround.
The third reform is that the police chief, the mayor, and City Council—have taken a holistic approach to the city’s problems. That means turning to local churches and nonprofits as allies.
After his foot patrol, Officer Rivera stops by CASA, a local non-profit helping troubled youth. Tim Gallagher is the director. Gallagher says the new department asked CASA to develop a gang violence intervention program. Today, when police come in contact with at-risk youth, they refer them to the program.
GALLAGHER: Now statistically it’s working, because the national averages, we’re above them in terms of kids that will then have a negative interaction with police after the intervention. Um, so that’s good. So now we’re trying to start this mentoring program between some of the officers who volunteer completely to stay connected with some of the kids.
Ernest Grant is a local pastor at Epiphany church. He says Camden police now seem better trained on de-escalation, on avoiding implicit bias, and on getting services for the poor instead of locking them up.
GRANT: I think they’re really trying to provide the wrap around services that our communities need, not just simply sending more police. We need police that build relationships with residents. They know that they’re not there just to, catch them doing wrong, but rather to, to ensure their safety.
Because Camden is much safer now, new businesses are coming into town and the poverty rate has dropped.
But Camden still has challenges. With new businesses coming, some residents now fear gentrification. And while crime has moved off the streets, Officer Vidal Rivera says crime is still happening behind closed doors where it’s more difficult to combat.
But Rivera says at least now families and children can feel safe. As he drives down another street, he points to houses decked out in Christmas decorations: Santa flags, wreaths and lights. Before, no one bothered to decorate.
Rivera says for the first time in a long time crime isn’t the most obvious thing on Camden streets—it’s hope.
RIVERA: You have your elderly people hanging out on their front steps, and they’re watching their grandkids play now. Mothers walking the neighborhoods with their kids enjoying a nice summer day. This is going to be, you know, a treat for kids today.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg, reporting from Camden, New Jersey.