Camden, New Jersey, isn't really a model for police reform

(Bruce Emmerling / Pixabay)

As the streets of US cities erupted in anger over the police killing of George Floyd earlier this summer, a narrative quickly emerged about how Camden, New Jersey, proves that a city can succeed in radically reshaping its police department.  

Camden’s police chief won attention and accolades for marching with protesters, an image that contrasted sharply with burning buildings and armored vehicles in Minneapolis. Camden’s lack of a conflagration was quickly attributed to the city’s elimination of its old police force and its replacement with a county-controlled institution.  

But while there has been much talk of other American cities looking to Camden as a model, it is not at all clear that the experience of one of the nation’s poorest cities can be so readily replicated. 

Camden’s “police reform” story is directly linked to its deeply disadvantaged political-economic position. It is in many ways segregated racially and economically from the rest of the surrounding region, and its local politicians have for some time now been deprived of any real power because the city is heavily reliant on the state of New Jersey for much of its budget.

“[Camden’s experience] was a conjunction of opportunities and circumstances that would be really tough to replicate,” says Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress and a veteran of New Jersey’s local policymaking world. “It’s a city that’s hyper-segregated and hyper-poor in terms of the people who live there and the fiscal resources of the local government. By the time the police issue came to a head, Camden was a ward of the state.”

In the current moment, as activists across the US are calling to “defund the police” and law enforcement unions are seen as an impediment to change, it's easy to see why Camden’s story sounds so appealing. 

But the story of the dissolution of Camden’s police department is directly linked to its status as the New Jersey city with the weakest tax base, in a state that struggles with high rates of educational and residential segregation. State aid has comprised the vast majority of Camden’s budget since at least the 1990s: in 2016, Pew found that the city spent $150 million but has tax revenues of only $25 million.

That reality made then-governor Chris Christie’s 2010 decision to cut state aid to distressed cities exceptionally devastating. Among other sweeping cuts to city services, such as the closure of its library system, the Camden police department saw its ranks cut in half. 

As crime spiked, the morale and reputation of the Camden police department plunged. Already facing charges of corruption and brutality from the ACLU, the department and its union made an obvious target. In 2013, the force was disbanded and a new one formed under Camden County control without, at first, union protections. Today, crime in Camden is lower and the reputation of the local police force has improved.

But the story is loaded with complications for those who would seek to emulate it. The new Camden County police force is actually larger than its predecessor and enjoys a larger budget, routed through the county government. Its officers are younger, whiter, and less likely to live in the city. After its establishment, the force ramped up “proactive” policing, which many younger residents experience as harassment. Use-of-force complaints surged, and a new, more progressive rule book was only adopted after a serious campaign by local activists. 

One of the Camden plan’s architects, Jose Cordero, says that such a course should only be taken as “a last resort.” He believes the enthusiasm for Camden’s story misses the complexities of the policymaking that he took part in and the fact that it was backed by a major re-commitment of county, state, and federal aid.

 “A lot of localities want to rush to get this done but there were a lot of caveats to this,” says Cordero, a former director of law enforcement for New Jersey. “There was a lot of state intervention that made it that possible in terms of not only funding the process but dealing with issues of civil service. It requires upfront funding above what the typical costs of policing are.” 

One of the most prominent caveats is that depriving a municipality of local control over police will be highly controversial. Camden residents actively fought against the elimination of their police force, gathering thousands of signatures to sue the city and the county to prevent the plan from being enacted. (In 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the action was illegal but by then it was far too late.) 

“Yes, there was corruption and the police force was problematic,” says Ojii Baba Madi, pastor of Asbury Community Church in Camden. “But nobody in the community was saying, ‘hey, you know what, let's wrest control of this force from the city and put it in the hands of the county.’ There was no robust effort at community engagement at all.” 

There is still deep displeasure among many Camden residents that the police department is no longer locally controlled and that its demographics do not reflect the city’s majority Black and Puerto Rican population. Madi says that there is a strong sense that they are living in a policy laboratory because the city is in such an abject fiscal position, allowing it to be a site of experiments for more powerful politicians. 

As evidence that the new police force exists in spite of their wishes, city residents point to the fact that the new department only serves the city, even though any jurisdiction in Camden County could opt-in to it.  But of the 35 other county municipalities eligible for coverage by the force, every single one opted out. 

“In New Jersey, and many other states, but Jersey more specifically towns really care about self-identity,” says Cordero, who helped formulate the Camden County plan. “It's very difficult for them to give up their police or fire. Whether they're too costly, whether they're ineffective, they want local control. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. What I am saying is I wasn't surprised [when all the other municipalities opted out of the force].”

It is partly this expansive patchwork of townships, and the quirks of municipal finance in the US, that doomed Camden. Unlike many European countries, or Canada, tax revenues and services in the United States are not broadly shared across a region. That means a resident can pick up from Camden, move a mile away to bordering towns such as Pennsauken or Woodlynne, and take all of their local tax dollars with them into those townships. That’s why capital flight, and then white flight, devastated Camden so thoroughly: companies and residents with means could move nearby with minimal disruption while ruining the city budget. 

Many of the townships outside Camden are working class, and some are non-majority white or increasingly racially diverse, but they’ve historically done far better out of this arrangement than the city. That’s why they felt no pressure to join the county police system. 

“The United States is an outlier in the extent to which we organize and support services at a very local level,” says John Logan, a professor of sociology at Brown University. “One of the awful things about that is the very communities where the most services are needed are places that have less ability to provide those services. While those communities are disadvantaged by that system, there are winners and they don't want to give up anything.” 

Camden’s situation is also an outlier in that New Jersey is unusually generous in the amount of aid it provides to distressed municipalities. Because New Jersey provides so much funding to the city, state leaders have felt very comfortable stripping city political leaders of power more formally as well. 

In the 1980s, oversight from the capitol in Trenton required Camden to seek state approval for any contract or purchase over $4,500, and for all municipal appropriations. In the 1990s, a financial control board took even more power from city lawmakers, and between 2002 and 2010, the state took total control of Camden’s government. 

Today, in addition to county control of the police department, the state controls the local school district. At the regional and county levels, a well-oiled political machine run by the insurance executive George Norcross has happily worked with governors of both parties to formulate these plans. 

Rutgers professor Stephen Danley believes that the formal power over the police that Camden lost to county and state leaders actually empowered local activists in a roundabout way. 

Camden residents lost formal accountability with the disbanding of the police, however, residents gained informal accountability because the political architects of the plan were on the hook for its success,” says Danley, who lives in Camden. “The responses by the new force were complex, but some of them were clearly in response to critiques by the local NAACP and the burgeoning local Black Lives Matter movement.”

Danley points to reform successes such as a 2019 order that Camden police officers must intercede and stop fellow officers if they see excessive force taking place. Use-of-force complaints have since plummeted, and the number of instances when officers report that they have used force have fallen as well. 

Nonetheless, Camden’s story does not provide any easy answers to police reform for American policymakers. Instead it is a story of a city that is unusually abject before state and county powerbrokers. At the same time if Danley is right – it is also a story about how city residents managed to pressure police officials and leaders who weren’t democratically accountable to them into doing the right thing. 

If there is one big takeaway from the Camden story it is that dissolving a local police department and starting anew is not a popular move. Many city residents are still angry about the loss of their department, a final indignity after decades of declining power and autonomy. No other localities wanted to take part, all of them professing to be too attached to their local forces.

Two big stories of 2020 could potentially shift that narrative. In neighboring Woodlynn, a police officer who’d left the Camden County force and eight other departments by the age of 30, got scooped up by the township. He is now suspended again for pepper-spraying a teenager with no provocation on 4 June, in the midst of nationwide protests against police brutality.

“If we were truly a county police force, that would not have happened,” says Madi, whose church is located in Woodlynn. “Why does Woodlynn, a tiny borough nine blocks long, have their own department? I would be a lot less critical if this were a truly county-wide plan, because that really makes sense to consolidate. But that's not what it was. This was a political and power grab.”

Now though, it is possible that townships could be forced to seek cost savings in  the Camden County force. The coronavirus and its attendant economic catastrophe mean states and municipalities are facing unimaginable financial hardships. New Jersey is starting at a $10 billion budget hole by the end of the next fiscal year. Under these stark conditions, the case for public service consolidation may become too strong to resist. 

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.