Former Camden County, New Jersey police chief: Officers are guardians, not warriors

CAMDEN, New Jersey -- With calls to 'defund the police' heard across the country and departments under close scrutiny, officials in Camden County, New Jersey see their law enforcement model as an example that reform is possible.

In 2012, the City of Camden Police Department was facing millions of dollars in budget deficits. There were also serious concerns about the department's troubled relationship with the residents.

Lawmakers pushed to disband the city's police department and replaced it with the Camden County Police Department, which was not bound to police union rules and restrictions.

Since the transformation, crime in Camden is down significantly. Complaints against police are down by 95% and residents now paint a different picture of how they view their police and living in Camden.

J. Scott Thomson, the former police chief of both the Camden Police Department and Camden County Police Department, was interviewed on Thursday's edition of ABC's "Good Morning America."

Thomson, who retired last year, spoke with GMA anchor George Stephanopoulos about the changes the police department has undergone in the past decade:

George Stephanopoulos: We want to talk about your experience in Camden. Back in 2013, you actually disbanded and transformed your police force as your city was facing a public safety crisis: a high murder rate coupled with scores of complaints about excessive force. What did you learn from it? What did you do?

J. Scott Thomson: So, 2012 was arguably the darkest hour in the city's history, particularly in terms of public safety. We had extremely high levels of mistrust, virtually no legitimacy with the community.
A bold political decision was made to disband the police force and try something new.

So we created a new policing paradigm. We knew we had the rare opportunity to build culture as opposed to the challenge of changing culture. So we really created this organization on three bedrock principles: our officers were going to be guardians and not warriors, we were going to engage in extraordinary levels of community empowerment, and we would embrace de-escalation as a part of our culture and not just as a training exercise.

Stephanopoulos: Define that term community empowerment. We hear that a lot and hear community policing a lot. That can mean a lot of different things to many different people.

Thomson: There are 18,000 police departments in the country and probably 18,000 different definitions for community policing. Community policing cannot be a unit. It can't be a group of officers that are going and doing nice things in the neighborhood. It can't just end there. It's got to be an organizational philosophy embraced from the top on down.

In Camden, we did the extraordinary move - we got rid of our patrol division and our entire police department operates as community officers.

The officers' job is to get to the root cause issues of the problems. Don't look to arrest, issue summons or use force to try to make things right. We want to work with the community. We want to be coalescers, conveners. Working with them, enforcing the law with them and not just on them, so that we can make their quality of life better.

What we have found is we've reduced murders by nearly 80%. We went from having 175 open air drug markets to less than 20. We have excessive force complaints dropped 95%. The best thing about all this was that the revolution of the city has been more of the empowerment of the people reclaiming their city, more so than the police militarizing it and enforcing the law.

EMBED More News Videos

As police departments in this country are coming under closer scrutiny, in Camden, a law enforcement model is proving that reform is possible.



Stephanopoulos: Dig beneath the slogan 'defund the police.' How can you replicate it in other cities and counties across the country?

Thomson: I think you need to be careful with the defunding. First of all, I'm not sure which definition we're going with. I heard it go from everything from abolishing the police, which I don't think that is really an option to repurposing money to get to issues.

Now, I don't think there is a progressive police chief in the country that wouldn't trade ten officers for another Boys and Girls Club. When you look at the more challenged police departments and peel the layers of the onion back, what you find is there's been a defunding of that organization over the years in all the wrong places.

There are many organizations that the only time the officers receive use of force training or de-escalation training is in their initial on-boarding in the academy. Then they go 20, 30 years and never receive another refresher course.
Copyright © 2020 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.