CAMDEN, N.J. – A year after Camden disbanded its police department and brought in a new one with more officers on the street, reported crime has dropped significantly in a city that still ranks as dangerous by any measure.
After years of doing little more than responding to emergency calls, police are on intensive neighborhood patrols, a move that has sent drug dealers scattering. But residents, advocates and officials agree that law enforcement alone can go only so far to heal a city that is also among the nation's most impoverished.
"To me, violence will always be around and so will the drugs," said Melanie Andujar, who lives in the Fairview neighborhood and was visiting her mother in North Camden. She's still shaken by a shooting on her block a few weeks ago. "Has it calmed down? Yes. I don't think it will ever stop."
Camden, a city of 77,000 across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, has had decades of decline as the once-booming industrial city saw nearly all its manufacturing jobs disappear by the early 1990s.
With relatively few local businesses and low property values, most of the city government's revenue comes from state taxpayers. In 2011, state aid reductions contributed to a financial crisis for the city government, which had deep layoffs in all its departments, including cutting loose nearly half its police officers.
Crime spiked. In 2012, a record 67 people were slain in the city – 18 times the national rate.
In the words of one advocate for crime victims, lawless people turned fearless as police disappeared from the streets.
The bold effort to fix the problem was to get rid of the city police department and the union contract that city officials found onerous. The city contracted with the Camden County government, which built a new police force. The Camden County Metro police patrol only in Camden, not its suburbs. Clerical, analytical and crime-scene processing jobs once done by gun-carrying sworn officers were given to civilians, and most of the cops were put on beats on the street.
The new department – featuring many of the same officers and the same chief – took over officially on May 1, 2013. When a new class graduates from the academy and hits the streets in July, the city will have more than 400 police officers, up from about 175 at its lowest.
Raphael Thornton, a Metro police sergeant who lives in Merchantville in Camden County, said he's encouraged enough by the changes that he can see moving back into the city where he grew up once his children are grown.
The new police force is trying to meld old-school tactics such as officers walking the beat with new technology aimed at preventing crime. The department has 120 outdoor cameras, devices that can read license-plate numbers from afar, shot-sensing microphones and map systems that show the location of every police cruiser and a system that automatically alerts nearby officers to 911 calls.
The statistics so far are promising. Even without a fully staffed police force, crime in every major category except for arson – which held steady – was down from Jan. 1 to March 31 compared with the same period last year. The number of shootings dropped from 88 to 46.
On a warm afternoon last week in North Camden, corners where young men used to congregate and sell drugs were quiet.
Several men sitting on stoops and porches on State Street say police have been overly aggressive in pushing everyone away. Steve Allen said he received three summonses for loitering in less than two weeks this year. He's gone to court and gotten charges dropped in the first two cases and plans to contest the third. One citation, he said, was issued when he was walking to a store and stopped briefly to speak with a friend.
Angel Carrion said he is stopped and questioned constantly by police in the new department.
"There's stuff that's good," said Carrion, who works in a pet food factory. "But sometimes they go to extremes."
The Rev. Jeff Putthoff, a Catholic priest who founded and runs a nonprofit that teaches young people technology skills, said drug dealers have "gone mobile," still selling but no longer doing it from one spot.
"I'm actually asked to buy drugs more than I ever have been before," he said.
Still, police Chief Scott Thomson said clearing the corners is important in advancing the force's mission of making people feel safe. "A byproduct of open-air drug markets is flagrant violence, particularly gun violence that occurs in neighborhoods."
Law enforcement alone cannot solve the issues that lead people to sell or abuse drugs, he said.
"The role that police can play in that is mitigating opportunities to commit these offenses," Thomson said.
Belma Ramos, 45, said she was never driven from her porch by criminal activity nearby. But she says it's nicer now along State Street. "Since they put in the Metro, it's cooled down a lot," she said. "It's been OK."
But Putthoff said it's a mistake to think that a drop in crime means the city is suddenly healthy.
"We know that the chronic stress that happens to people's brains actually damages their brains," he said. "The injured brain isn't healed because there's less crime."