It was as predictable as the sun rising: No sooner did many participants in the recent George Floyd-killing protests and their supporters adopt “Defund the police” as a position, than all manner of Mainstream Media journalists and other sympathizers began piping in that not only is that stance not the slightest bit extreme, but that there’s a shining example of how this program could work: Camden, New Jersey.
Which sounds incredibly promising – especially considering that Camden has long been an especially dismal example of urban decay. Until you look at the Camden policing record since its police policy transformation began in 2014.
Throwing cold water on the Camden experiment is certainly not the same as dismissing the idea that many police reforms are urgently needed and long overdue. Let’s also acknowledge that many and possibly most “defunders” apparently don’t literally back abolishing police forces or even drastically reducing their budgets – or imagining that cops on the beat can literally be replaced person-for-person with social workers and community activists, or that “investing in communities” and law enforcement are either-or choices.
Most encouragingly, there does seem to be a strong case that for too long police forces have been given responsibilities that really aren’t policing matters, and that they shouldn’t be assigned to tasks like dealing with folks who suffer serious mental illness problems but aren’t institutionalized. No one should blanketly oppose all efforts to reshuffle municipal resources.
But the idea that Camden has adopted a radically new model of policing and that the results have been miraculous is at best way too simplistic, and indeed largely misleading. And no claims are more common, and more irresponsible, than contentions like “Camden Sees Crime Drop Over Past Decade.” (For other typical examples, see here and here.)
If, for example, you look at the crime statistics superficially (presented in the Tap into Camden article linked above), you do indeed see a falloff in crime in Camden over the last decade – from 5,559 in 2010 to 3,267 last year. (Of course, the full-year 2020 data aren’t in yet.) That’s an impressive 41.23 percent.
The problem is that Camden’s experiment in new police techniques isn’t a decade old. Its first full year didn’t come until 2014. The good news is that crime is off significantly since then, too – by 25.67 percent. In fact, it decreased more than during the pre-reform years – when crime fell by 20.94 percent.
The bad news is that crime changes over a specific period of time don’t clinch the case for effective or ineffective policing. That’s because these ups and downs often take place during periods of population change. And it’s not only clear that crime in Camden has been down at least in part because the city simply has been losing population. It’s also the case that, adjusted for population decline, crime declined more slowly in Camden before the police overhaul than it has since.
Specifically, during the four years between 2010 and 2014, when crime tumbled by 20.94 percent, the city’s population shrank by 1.45 percent. Between 2014 and 2018, the next four-year-period, Camden lost 2.60 percent of its residents – a difference of just over 79 percent. But the falloff in crime of 22.61 percent was only about eight percent greater than that seen during the previous four years.
Nor does the picture change much when you add in the 2019 totals – a fifth year – which brings the overall post-2014 crime decrease to the 25.67 percent figure mentioned above.
It’s also crucial to note that “Defund the police” doesn’t come close to describing accurately the changes the city actually made. First, to be technically accurate, Camden didn’t make these changes. In a desperation move (precisely because crime was deemed out of control) the surrounding county took charge in May, 2013. Moreover, although the new strategy undoubtedly emphasized “rebuilding trust between the community and their officers,” and “changing the culture” (as reported in the New York Times article linked above), other crucial elements were more policing and, it’s arguable, more intrusive policing. According to Times correspondent Kate Zernike, the county:
“added officers [and] put 120 civilian clerks and analysts in a new operations and intelligence center, monitoring 121 surveillance cameras and the gunshot-mapping microphones. When shots are fired or a 911 call comes in, the system automatically dispatches the two nearest police units.
“Car-mounted cameras read license plates, which are checked against law-enforcement databases. A disembodied voice announcing ‘medium alert’ signals a car whose owner has bought drugs in Camden before. ‘High alert’ flags a stolen car.”
Something else to keep in mind: As Zernike wrote, during the years leading up to 2013, the old city police force “was so overwhelmed, it stopped responding to property crimes or car accidents without injuries.” And even so, the data that take into account the vital demographic context show that crime at the time was dropping faster than it has during the post-reform period.
Moreover, focusing solely on “violent crime” reveals a better post-reform performance – but with one terrible exception. Adjusted for population change, murders and assaults have decreased faster after the reforms than before them. But whereas during the four years before the reform, rapes were off just over thirty percent, during the four years after, they rose by 25.49 percent.
The journalistic accounts have contained enough encouraging impressionistic observations to indicate that Camden is a better place to live now than it was pre-police reform. But as these reports also show, that’s an awfully – indeed, unacceptably – low bar. And it’s hard to imagine that many of the Defund supporters know that much of this progress results from a “thin blue line” that’s not only gotten considerably thicker, but that’s been equipped with many more eyes and ears.