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Former Chief Of Reformed Camden, N.J., Force: Police Need 'Consent Of The People'

Former Chief Scott Thomson, pictured in 2014, led the Camden County police from 2013 until 2019. The reconstituted countywide police department formed after the city dissolved the previous force.
Mel Evans
Former Chief Scott Thomson, pictured in 2014, led the Camden County police from 2013 until 2019. The reconstituted countywide police department formed after the city dissolved the previous force.

Activists across the country are calling for radical reforms to policing in the U.S., including abolishing the police entirely.

Camden, N.J., took its own big step in 2013. The city was in a public safety crisis, with murder rates 18 times the national average and scores of excessive-force complaints, when the mayor and City Council dissolved the existing police department and created a countywide force in its place.

A majority of the police were rehired, but each had to complete a 50-page application, retake psychological testing and go through an interview process, former police Chief Scott Thomson said. He led the county police from 2013 to 2019 and the city's force before then.

The department instituted other changes, including putting more officers on the street on a regular basis, getting to know the community and changing the way an officer's performance was measured — not by the number of arrests or tickets issued, but other outcomes.

"When I drove down city streets, I wanted to see little kids riding a bicycle in front of their homes, and I wanted to see people sitting on their front steps," Thomson told Mary Louise Kelly on NPR's All Things Considered.

His goal was the change the identity of Camden police officers from that of "warrior" to "guardian."

Homicides have gone down from 67 in 2012 to 25 in 2019. Excessive-force complaints went from 65 in 2012 to three last year, Thomson said.

The changes are far from the radical defunding proposed by activists today. But Thomson echoed many of their points.

"A police is only effective if it has the consent of the people. And to have the consent of the people, you have to be legitimate," he said. "As a police leader, I say, what is the harm with giving them voice, allowing them to come in and be a part of the process? And all the while, it gives us the ability to have the dialogue and the education, in both directions, of how difficult and challenging situations can be better resolved."

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Did you feel like you lost anything by getting rid of a more traditional police force, more traditional practices?

No. As a matter of fact ... I was an expert practitioner in failed police policies. And every day we used to come to work and we thought that we could reduce drug dealing and gang activity by locking up drug dealers. And we would put together teams, we would swoop in, we would do heavy enforcement. And essentially all we were really doing was revictimizing the people that lived within a community and [giving] opportunities for other criminals to come in. ... We were doing everything from a proactive perspective and doing it completely unilateral from the community in and of itself. We didn't have the permission. We didn't have their consent. So we didn't have legitimacy.

So what is your reaction to the calls we're hearing now? Protesters calling on cities to abolish their police forces.

So that's a bit extreme. I don't see a democratic society wherein you could completely eliminate a police force. I do think that there are some serious conversations that can happen with regards to defunding police. There are greater public safety returns on investment with programs other than putting money towards enforcement. ...

Look, I would have traded 10 cops for another Boys & Girls Club, but the system needs to change as far as having police respond to incidents such as mental illness. Police are not equipped. They're not trained. They're not specialized in that. But yet it continues to get delegated to them.

So I think if we changed the expectation of police and did not have them intersecting with community as frequently as it is in areas where they don't have expertise, I think that the tension on some of these issues could certainly lower if you put the money towards having specialists handle these situations. I think cops would actually appreciate that.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.