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Obama Touts New Jersey City's Success In Policing Efforts


President Obama used a city with a troubled reputation to deliver what he considered good news. The city is Camden, N.J., which has a serious crime problem. The president's view yesterday was that police in Camden have taken steps to improve relations between police and the community. Just yesterday on this program, we heard the local police chief who argued that he is working to build trust in a time when police incidents have led to unrest elsewhere. NPR's Jeff Brady is covering this story. He's on the line from Philadelphia, near Camden. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What have police done in Camden?

BRADY: Well, you know, for years, Camden has had a reputation both for its poverty and high crime rates, and 2012 was a particularly bad year. There were 67 murders. That's a lot for a city of 77,000 people. And the city had an unusual response. It dissolved the entire police department along with the union contract those officers had. The department is now under the county. There is no union. And with the money saved, Camden put more officers on the street and set about improving the tense relationship with residents. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we say that police in Camden, N.J., are not part of a union. In fact, even though their labor contract with the city was dissolved, the officers are represented by Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 218.]

INSKEEP: They tried, anyway. So how has that worked for the last couple of years?

BRADY: Well, the crime statistics - the crime statistics have improved. Last year, there were 32 murders in Camden. Still high, but that's less than half the 2012 number. In the Cramer Hill neighborhood yesterday, I found quite a few people who say police officers are a lot more visible now. And they aren't just driving by in cars. They're also walking in neighborhoods. One young woman, Marjahni Mendez, offered this observation of how the neighborhood changed.

MARJAHNI MENDEZ: Well, my aunt moved here five years ago. And where she lives, they usually hung - every week, they hung a white flag. That meant that somebody had died. If you look now, you see less and less flags, less and less violence in general.

BRADY: Mendez says she likes going for walks outside now. She feels safer doing that.

INSKEEP: That is tangible change. But at the same time, you said the murder rate is still high. What are residents saying about that?

BRADY: The president also pointed out that Camden still has a long way to go, but he wanted to highlight the progress the police department has made improving relations, which is, of course, a big issue across the country now. I talked with a Jesuit priest who runs the organization Hopeworks 'N Camden. It helps young people who've dropped out of school get back in. Father Jeff Putoff says this focus on reducing crime misses larger problems.

FATHER JEFF PUTOFF: Eighty percent of our youth live below the poverty line. Up to 70 percent of our youth drop out of high school. The police change hasn't addressed that at all. These are incredibly impactful realities in the lives of our youth that, in a sense, policing has to contain or manage.

BRADY: And Putoff says that isn't fair to the police. He says it's important for them to improve their relationship with the community, but he argues you can't just focus on that and then ignore the damage that years of poverty and violence have inflicted on people in a city like Camden. He says that needs to be repaired, too. And doing that involves much more than just reforming a police department.

INSKEEP: OK, that's NPR's Jeff Brady covering Camden, N.J. Jeff, thanks very much.

BRADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 19, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
We say that police in Camden, N.J., are not part of a union. In fact, even though their labor contract with the city was dissolved, the officers are represented by Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 218.
Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.