Hitting the “Reset Button”: The Transformation of the Camden Police Department

Part of a Series

This Insight is a part of the 2015 Public Safety Summit Report.

To see the complete report, click here.

One day in late July 2008, Scott Thomson, then the Deputy Police Chief in Camden, New Jersey, was summoned into the office of state Attorney General Anne Milgram and received what can only be described as a sudden promotion. Just 36 years old, Thomson had rapidly risen through the ranks of the Camden Police Department since joining the organization in 1994 and thought that the “seat [he was in] was good.” But Milgram, who was overseeing the city police department following a recent state takeover, informed Thomson that he was to become the city’s police chief. Immediately. The attorney general then took him to a room with elected officials, introduced him as the chief, and asked if they had any questions. One responded, Thomson recalled, by saying, “yeah, what’s his name?”

For a relatively young leader, taking over a police department in a mid-sized city would have been a significant challenge anywhere in the country, but Camden presented a unique conundrum. Thomson was the city’s sixth police chief in the past five years, and none of his predecessors had succeeded in shifting the tide in a city with one of the highest violent crime rates in the country, a murder rate that was higher than that of Honduras, and a per capita income of less than $12,000 per year. By many counts, Camden was the poorest and most violent city in the country, but the Attorney General made it perfectly clear that this was not an excuse for failure. “We will immediately stop the shootings and protect the people,” Milgram had said, in a reference to the fact that the city was on pace for a record murder rate that year.

This is about changing the narrative for people that have far too long been stuck.
Scott Thomson
Camden N.J. Police Chief

These challenges turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. In 2011, after three years in which Thomson had launched a massive corruption investigation, battled frivolous lawsuits, and dismissed undisciplined cops, the department lost 46% of its officers in a single day. The reduction resulted in the layoff of everyone who had been at the department for less than 15 years and the demotion of 70% of the staff that had been retained. With the police force effectively crippled by a 30% absentee rate (at that time, it took an average of 60 minutes to respond to a 911 call), the extraordinary decision was made by the Mayor and City Council to eliminate the city’s police department and replace it with a county force created by the county Freeholders with which the city would contract through a shared service agreement. All levels of government, including the State of New Jersey, worked together to establish a new public safety paradigm in Camden. “This was not a merger, this was not an acquisition,” said Thomson, “it was the abolishment of one department and the creation of another at the exact same time.”

With just 90 days to effect the change, many leaders would have panicked, but in enormous difficulty, Thomson, who was selected to head the new county force, saw an extraordinary opportunity. He had come to “love” the Camden force he joined in the early 1990s, but he had also seen it “devolve into a department that had become rooted in apathy, lethargy, and corruption.” In the establishment of an entirely new organization, he saw the opportunity to marginalize disenchanted personnel (a phenomenon he later described as “addition through subtraction”) and instill in the force an entirely new culture. “Seldom in life do you ever get an opportunity professionally or personally to hit the reset button,” said Thomson, “and this was one of those opportunities.”

“We Wanted Guardians, Not Warriors”

As Thomson worked to create the new organization, he strove to setup not just an entirely new structure; he also endeavored to alter completely the department’s culture. In particular, he wanted to establish an ethos focused on community partnership, not conflict. “We wanted guardians, not warriors,” Thomson said. “We would be community builders before we were crime fighters.”

The inculcation of this mentality began with recruitment. In dissolving the police department, the existing union contracts were also eliminated. With savings across the board, the new force could hire 411 officers instead of 250, as well as bring onboard new civilian staff, and new crime-fighting technology. That’s a recruiting challenge for any city, but for Camden—a city made up of 96 percent minorities where distrust of the police (which had previously had a command staff that was only one–third minority) was long and justified—it was an inflection point.

Thus, before even starting to recruit new personnel, they sought input from community members about what they were looking for in their force. Focus groups revealed that the priorities were officers who were empathetic, non-judgmental, caring, and community-oriented. Thomson looked for those qualities in hiring; he also made a point of actively recruiting minority officers (87% of the initial applicants were white males, but thanks to Thomson’s efforts, approximately 40% of the recruits were minorities); creating advertisements that depicted officers in community-building activities (e.g., speaking to kids, neighborhood residents, and the elderly); and above all communicating to new hires the importance of working with the people of Camden. “I’d say,” Thomson recalled, “‘Listen, if you’re coming here because you want to be a crime fighter, because you hear of our crime statistics and think you can ‘kick butt and take names,’ I will personally fire you.’”

Once the county police force was stood up on May 1, 2013, Thomson reinforced the message he had communicated during recruitment by taking concrete steps to cultivate a community-oriented culture in the new force. One was augmenting the traditional police officer's oath of office by adding to this solemn promise language about "service before self.” He then made sure to incorporate that notion into all of the department’s communications and even had it emblazoned on officers’ badges. The collective effect, Thomson believes, has been a powerful and consistent message that “resonates” with people and which has been paramount to the organization’s transformation. Officers sense they are a part of something larger than themselves. “Without culture,” Thomson explained, “nothing else follows.”

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Connecting Culture with Structure, Technology, and Policy

Thomson also imbued this service-orientation in a broader set of structural, technological, and policy shifts that have shaped the organization. One structural change was outsourcing select service personnel, including crime-scene technicians, the information technology specialist, and intelligence analysts. This has helped the department to decrease costs (the consultants are about 20% cheaper than full-time staff); it also makes it easy for Thomson to reprogram personnel who do not embrace the department’s guiding ethos.

A more significant structural change was increasing the proportion of an officer’s time spent in communities building trust and relationships as opposed to handling radio assignments. In most mid-size police departments, Thomson explained, about 20% of a department's uniformed officers are assigned in a community policing capacity (e.g., walking in communities and engaging with residents), and the other 80% of the force responds to the demands of calls for service. The new Camden County department has nearly inverted that ratio, devoting 30% of officers’ time to traditional service-driven Patrol Divisions and the other 70% to community policing's Neighborhood Response Teams.

Morale? It is important but at the end of the day we have an oath of office to uphold, and whether you like your boss or not isn’t going to determine whether or not you uphold your oath of office.
Scott Thomson
Camden N.J. Police Chief

The latter groups do not just drive through communities in patrol cars; on Neighborhood Response Teams, officers walk the streets, ride their bikes, and knock on doors. This has enabled the police department, as Thomson noted, to increase its “street-presence” as much as five-fold, depending on the time and day. It has also created the circumstances under which Thomson’s force can build relationships with and demonstrate its service orientation to residents; even more importantly, it has helped the department prevent crimes from occurring rather than responding after the fact. As Thomson said, “Often the difference between something bad happening or not is the presence of a guardian figure.” Of the broader relationship between the police and community, the chief added:

The people in the neighborhoods didn’t trust the cops and, unfortunately, some had good reasons for why they felt this way. So, the only way we were going to build trust was not going to be from the chief giving good speeches
at community meetings, it’s going to have to be through positive human contact by the cops themselves on the streets with the people of that neighborhood.

Finally, Thomson implemented interwoven policy and technological shifts. From the chief’s perspective, efficiency is imperative: it demonstrates to residents that their resources are being used appropriately and that officers are doing everything they can to protect them. To that end, after noticing enormous variation (anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes) in how long it was taking officers to respond to a typical call for service, Thomson conferred with the command staff and established policies for calls based upon analysis and consensus. This then served as the baseline to measure an officer’s day. He has also used analytics to track and measure how officers are spending their time and established a digital dashboard or Interactive Resource Management Center that enables him to track the units and personnel out in the field from both a macro and micro perspective. The end result is a team that is not just committed to serving the people of Camden but one that is equipped and incentivized to do so.

The Impact

A little over two years after its creation, the Camden County Police Department has made a substantial impact. The average 911-response time is now 4.4 minutes (down from as much as 60 minutes before), and crime is way down. Murders have been cut 62 percent, violent crime has dropped 30 percent, and shootings are down 46 percent. Said Thomson, “Where we once had 175 open air drug markets, we’re now down below 40 and continuing to progress.” But more important than statistical reduction is the community's feeling of being safer. Consider this: children now play and ride their bikes on streets that were once controlled by gangs.

Skeptics remain, including as Governing magazine reported, those who have depicted the new force as a union-busting scheme, others who have suggested that eliminating an entire organization robs the new one of vital institutional memory, and those who say that regardless of police reform, the city will not become safe until broader reform takes place across the city. But to Thomson, the change he has effected within his organization has the potential to send ripples throughout the city. The chief acknowledged that many factors affect public and community safety, but he also highlighted the importance of policing, saying, “We are the most important variable in the equation of a vibrant city."

And therein lies a window into his approach: he’s not just changing the culture of the police force; he’s changing the culture of Camden.

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