President Obama on Monday made Camden the staging ground for his latest push for police reform, which may be surprising if you've ever heard of Camden. The South Jersey city has, for decades, been a synonym for violence, invoked as a cautionary tale about the depths to which urban America could sink. In 2012, it had the highest crime rate of any city in the United States, according to CQ Press’s annual rankings. That was more than five times the national average. However, Camden fell out of the rankings entirely the following year—but not because of a drastic drop in crime. It was due to one simple technicality, something that likely sounds crazy if you're still invested in the flawed notion that police are here to protect us all. Camden disappeared from the crime rankings because it got rid of its police department.
CQ Press doesn't measure communities that are policed by county-run departments. In May of 2013, Camden became one when they engaged in a “radical experiment” in law enforcement, by contracting out its policing to Camden County. After the move, the county police could field a larger force for about the same money, giving Camden the human resources to mount more patrols and to constructively engage with those living in the neighborhoods they were policing. Taken on face value, the statistics are impressive. Homicides in 2014 were down more than half since 2012, and non-fatal shootings declined by only a slightly smaller percentage.
The beleaguered city, along with seven others, was labeled a “promise zone” by the Obama administration in April, designating it as a high-poverty community that partners with the federal government to "increase economic activity, improve educational opportunities, leverage private investment, reduce violent crime, enhance public health," and achieve other goals. Furthermore, the city has reportedly joined the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which partially aims to improve relations between police officers and black men in the community who (often rightfully) regard them with a suspicious eye.
People living in communities brutalized by the police are not the only ones giving American cops a suspicious glance. It isn't limited to America. Just one week ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council roundly condemned the United States, in part, for racism and police brutality. The world is watching. So are the citizens of Camden who, while they may be excited to see their president come to town, need him to understand that statistics only go so far.
Previewing his remarks in his weekly address, the president promised to spotlight departments like Camden County’s, and to provide “steps all cities can take to maintain trust between the brave law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line and the communities they’re sworn to serve and protect.” Part of maintaining that trust, as one might expect, is assuring residents that peaceful protests against police killings won’t be greeted with tear gas fired by cops dressed like the military—and that tanks and other armored vehicles won't take the place of squad cars. If, as we saw in Ferguson, Missouri, last year, police departments feel that military equipmant should be used to quell peaceful protest, they simply shouldn’t have it.
"We’re going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments," President Obama said Monday afternoon in Camden. What does that mean, specifically? Based on the recommendations of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing, the federal government will immediately prohibit local police from obtaining a whole class of equipment with federal funds. These include tracked armored vehicles, weaponized aircraft and vehicles, grenade launchers, and large-caliber firearms. (Also banned: bayonets. Who knew?) One problem I see here is that the memo omits any mention of the infamous 1033 program, which allowed local police departments to pluck surplus weaponry and supplies from the U.S. military. But other vehicles and items that aren’t banned will be under tighter control, and more stringent training standards are to be implemented. Despite unsubstantiated complaints from the firearms lobby, this is the first time President Obama has actually said he’s taking away someone’s guns.
While that debate continues to grab headlines, another White House recommendation merits greater scrutiny, particularly in Camden. The administration has promised a federal initiative focusing on community policing, which sounds right up Camden’s alley, given the county police’s newly enhanced reputation for engaging the community. But does this "model" city completely deserve its reputation? Its county department has experienced a lot of turnover, some of the heaviest in the state. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Sunday that the county has struggled to retain officers; nearly 120 have resigned or retired in the two years since the Camden Police Department was dissolved. The officers who have stayed haven’t fully earned the trust of their communities. “They pay attention to stuff that's unimportant here, but forget about the places where people are killing each other for no reason,” 12-year-old Jazmere Hopps told NJ.com. A.J. Fenner, 14, told the site, “I still get profiled a lot.”
Another fundamental flaw in most community policing initiatives, as Donovan X. Ramsey laid out months ago here at The New Republic, is that it's based on respectability. It places at least some of the burden of change on people who are being brutalized by making them responsible for the police treating them better.
What is encouraging is that this Obama community-policing plan emphasizes data collection on officer-involved shootings and other encounters with citizens. Twenty-one jurisdictions, including Camden and neighboring Philadelphia, have joined the White House’s Police Data Initiative (PDI). The White House claims that all of these jurisdictions will submit data to the public, and an open-source tool is being built, giving access to the data to police, community groups, and researchers alike.
The president’s actions Monday represent a long-overdue step by the federal government toward building a national database for police shootings. It’s a good first response to the complaints about the lack of accountability for officers involved in deadly incidents—not just in court, but in house. But one hopes the White House understands that while there likely aren't too many black people alive in America who believe police officers to be on their side, I’m not sure friendship is what we need. Respect has to come before any kind of community relations are built, and respect is often contingent upon accountability. Data is the most elementary, yet necessary, tool to enforce that.