As nationwide calls for police reform build, Camden may serve as a model

Camden County Police
Photo credit KYW Newsradio
By KYW Newsradio 1060
CAMDEN, N.J. (KYW Newsradio) — Police departments across America are struggling with calls for reform in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Many cities are looking to Camden as an example of how to address racial injustice by overhauling police procedures. 

The Camden Police Department was revamped seven years ago from top to bottom. 

After the city had a record number of homicides in 2013, leaders at the state, county and municipal level all agreed a change had to come. The city police force was disbanded and replaced with one run by Camden County.

Every cop was dismissed, including chief Scott Thomson. 

Thomson reapplied for his job, as did more than 150 others. A few dozen cops left, and a handful were not brought back.

Thomson oversaw the effort that led to better community relations, starting with schools, and lower crime rates, particularly violent crime. He credits new work rules, new leadership and a new attitude based on respect.

"Having a new police department gave the ability to implement change," he said. "What would normally take three years to accomplish in the prior organization we would be able to do in three days under the new work rules, the new collective bargaining agreement, the new command structure."

Today, Thomson's name adorns the headquarters of the Camden County Police Department. There are some 400 officers now, along with a new culture. And Camden is no longer called "the most dangerous city in America."

Thomson is now a top security official at Holtec International. Among his suggestions for reforming police departments: Stick to the fundamentals. Let cops be cops, and leave issues such as homelessness and mental illness to experts.

"We continually as a society push 22-year-olds that just got out of the academy to go handle these extremely complex situations that people with PhDs and specialties in these disciplines still haven't been able to resolve. And we expect this young cop to fix it. And the tools we've given them are a handgun, a pair of handcuffs, and a ticket book," Thomson said.

Police departments need to build bridges with the community, he says, and that’ll get things started.