Camden chief partly credits new tactics for crime drop

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Camden's Chief of Police, John Thomson, left, with Camden's Police Director, Louis Vega, in a file photo from July. (Michael Bryant/Inquirer)

Two months after the Camden Police Department tripled the number of officers on the streets, deployed caravans of cruisers into troubled neighborhoods and began targeting people who buy drugs, the city's violent crimes appear to be on the wane, Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson said yesterday.

The downward shift cannot be credited solely to the police department's new tactics, Thomson said. Crime ebbs and flows on its own, and also tends to decline somewhat after the summer is over.

Still, the nunbers are encouraging to Thomson, whose challenge is to get results from a department that has undergone six leadership changes in as many years, and which has long struggled to suppress rampant drug dealing, a rising gang presence and a troubling homicide rate.

This week, Camden saw its 43d homicide of the year - the same number of killings that the city experienced in all of 2007.

In his first lengthy interview since taking over as head of the Camden department, Thomson said yesterday the department's massive reorganization has already improved community relations, as well as had an impact on crime.

Police officers are getting out of their cars and talking with residents, Thomson said. Calls for shootings and assaults are down. And officers are seizing what they say could be a record number of illegal guns, which Thomson believes is key to tamping down the city's violence.

"When someone knows officers are going to get out of a squad car and engage them in conversation, that's an incentive for that person to put some distance between themselves and a gun," Thomson said. "If we can get a gun left in an abandoned building instead of in a waistband on a street corner, that's progress for us."

So far this month, assaults, non-fatal shootings, robberies, burglaries and rapes in Camden are down from last month and July, said Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for the Camden County prosecutor's office.

The city has had 38 reports of aggravated assault so far this month, as opposed to 81 in August. Reports of assault with a firearm are down from 22 last month to eight this month. Last month, there were 347 reported thefts. So far in September, there have been 152. Numbers for July are similar to the figures from August.

"Camden is obviously putting forth a lot of effort here," Laughlin said. "It's too soon to make any declarations about the effectiveness of the police reorganization, but the numbers are promising."

Thomson was appointed chief on July 30, the same day the state Attorney General's office announced that the city's dire circumstances demanded a drastic response.

The department has since combined some of the department's desk jobs and arranged for every active officer to get back on some kind of patrol schedule. Commanders analyze patterns of crime activity in each neighborhood on a daily basis and adjust patrol schedules accordingly.

Cruisers now patrol in some sections of the city for 24 hours a day, and undercover officers are arresting people who buy drugs in Camden. Most of the people arrested for buying drugs in Camden are from outside of the city, and Thomson hopes the targeted stings will force some customers to go elsewhere.

Possibly the most visible difference since the reorganization took place is that, periodically, fleets of cruisers patrol the city's known crime hotspots, traveling in groups of 20 or more. Sometimes those mobilizations go on for an hour, sometimes more, sometimes less. The police are constantly changing the guidelines for those patrols, Thomson said.

"By rotating these massive patrols, it makes it so that when people see squad cars, they don't know if there's going to be 10 or 20 right behind it," Thomson said.

Some members of the community are impressed by the noticeably larger police presence in their neighborhoods, and they told Thomson so at a recent community meeting.

Kelly Francis, a longtime resident who is head of the Camden County NAACP, said at that meeting it's too soon to tell whether Thomson will be able to make real changes in the department.

"We've heard people tell us they're going to do a lot of things that never got done," Francis said. "[Thomson] has to prove himself to the community with what he does."


Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 856-779-3838 or asteele@phillynews.com.