CAMDEN – President Barack Obama came here Monday to commend a new approach to law enforcement, telling a cheering crowd “this city is onto something.”
During a three-hour visit, Obama visited the high-tech nerve center of the Camden County Police Department, then stopped at the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Cramer Hill to talk with local teens and officers and to deliver a speech on police reform.
The president called for a greater emphasis on community policing, saying its use by the Camden County Police Department had cut crime and made the city “a symbol of promise for the nation.”
He also discussed recommendations in a report released Friday by his Task Force on 21st Century Policing, including several tactics already in use by the county department.
Obama noted county police officers walk their beats and “actually get to know the residents,” in part by participating in social activities unrelated to law enforcement. He said violent crime has dropped sharply since the department’s formation in May 2013 and, with more officers on the streets, residents are seeing quicker response times for emergencies.
But Obama’s appearance also drew critics of the county police, which replaced a city department hit hard by cost-cutting layoffs. The county department, although struggling with high turnover, has around 359 officers, compared with about 290 in the final days of the municipal force.
In a statement, the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union expressed concern “about the sharp increase in arrests and summonses for low-level offenses in Camden since the new force took over.” It also noted “what appears to be the absence of adequate accountability for excessive force complaints.”
The ACLU-NJ said those conditions “can lead to greater mistrust and a feeling of harassment by the police.”
When a motorcade brought Obama to the Police Administration Building shortly after 1 p.m., a small crowd of demonstrators gathered outside a McDonald’s restaurant across Mount Ephraim Avenue. Protesters chanted, pounded drums and blew horns to get the president’s attention.
“Come over and talk to us,” activist Gary Frazier shouted at reporters and photographers accompanying the president.
Several held hand-made signs, including one that showed a man with his mouth taped shut. “Please open your ears and hear the whole story,” the sign read.
Small but friendly crowds appeared along the motorcade route, ranging from groups of workers outside downtown offices to residents at parks and housing complexes. Some people waved American flags as Obama rode by.
At the police station, Obama got a rundown from Chief Scott Thomson on how the force has combined technology with community police to reduce crime. The two men conversed in a room filled with dozens of TV screens linked to Eye in the Sky cameras throughout the city and tracked by officers and civilian workers.
Thomson said the cameras allow police to anticipate problems before they occur and free officers on the street for community interactions not based on law enforcement. The chief said cameras also watch over children going to and from school.
“We establish safe corridors for students,” Thomson told the president.
“If you see trouble brewing on a corner, you can get an officer to walk by to make sure the kids are safe?” asked Obama, as the chief nodded affirmatively.
‘Progress,’ not ‘victory’
In an interview, Thomson said Obama’s appearance “was not a declaration of victory as much as a celebration of progress.” He said that community policing had helped build trust with a once-suspicious community, but that more must be done.
“The fact that less mothers are burying their children, the fact that children are beginning to play in the streets and the parks, and that people are enjoying their front steps, are all signs of progress,” Thomson said. “It’s promising.”
Obama formed his police task force in December in the face of rising tensions between residents and police in troubled communities across the nation. Its 120-page report, accompanied by 50 pages of recommendations, was unveiled hours before the president’s helicopter touched down in a parking lot south of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
Among its findings, the report says “law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to impose control on the community.”
Obama said he would immediately implement some recommendations, including restrictions on the use of military weaponry by police departments.
President Obama was previously in Camden on Nov. 1, 2009, when he campaigned unsuccessfully for then-Gov. Jon Corzine at the Susquehanna Bank Center. The president also visited South Jersey in December, when he traveled to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
After his speech at the Kroc Center, Obama pushed through the crowd to shake hands with several city youngsters, including purple-shirted members of Camden High School’s basketball team.
“I feel great!” enthused ballplayer Myles Thompson, a Camden High freshman. “I feel really, really excited!”
The president previously had chatted with the teens and several officers in a private session in a Kroc Center gym. Thompson said Obama “asked me how the streets were and what we do.”
At least two of the team members had been touched by the city’s violence. Rasool Hinson, a senior, lost his mother to a stray bullet in 2005; Jamal Holloway, a junior, lost a friend, 18-year-old Ja’meer Bullard, to gunfire last month.
Thompson said he had a message for the president: “Camden’s a great city. I love it.”