Camden police chief to be honored for adaptive strategies

042411_scott_thomson_400
Police Chief Scott Thomson, who has endured massive layoffs. "He's had to change the way he polices," said one official. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

Patrolling in his Camden Police SUV on a recent day, Chief Scott Thomson dispersed a group of men hanging outside a house near Filmore and Viola, a known drug corner.

He spied a community activist and stopped to talk about the installation of surveillance cameras in the area, which is running ahead of schedule. The cameras should help quell the situation, he said.

Thomson's use of technology and increased street patrols in one of the nation's most dangerous cities will be recognized Friday by the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank in Washington. Its current president is Philadelphia Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.

Thomson will receive the Gary Hayes Award for innovative policing at the forum's annual conference, said Chuck Wexler, its executive director.

"No community has had to face what he's had to face," Wexler said. "He's had to change the way he polices."

Facing a $26.5 million budget deficit, Camden laid off 163 police officers in January.

With almost half of his force gone in a single day, Thomson rearranged his staff.

He reduced administrative functions and put virtually every officer on the street. On April 1, the city was able to bring back 55 staff members through a federal grant and a $2.5 million payment from the South Jersey Port Corp.

The rehired officers, who were put on night and weekend patrols, brought the force to 254 - down from about 370 before the layoffs. Another federal grant is expected to result in the rehiring of 10 more officers.

An analysis of recent crime statistics shows that overall violent crime in the nine-square-mile city has trended downward, despite an increase in gun violence. That momentum began in the fall and continued this year, even after the layoffs. Experts say that it takes a year or two to identify trends, but that small snapshots are noteworthy. The spike in shootings is a reason for concern.

After the layoffs, instead of having officers respond to minor traffic accidents and other nonserious offenses, Thomson directed them to focus on the bigger crimes and to engage in problem-solving policing.

"Some things we are no longer able to perform," such as responding to a home to take a property-crime report, Thomson said.

In the last two years, Camden has received federal money to buy crime-fighting technology. Given the loss of manpower, the grants could not have been more timely.

Eleven license-plate readers and more than a dozen gunshot-detection sensors have helped the department apprehend criminals faster and get a better grip on what kind of criminal activity is taking place.

About 30 percent of shootings go unreported by residents, Thomson said. The sensors, scattered throughout the city, have helped police track almost all weapons fire.

The license-plate readers do a quick scan and can alert an officer on patrol that a car he is passing is stolen.

Eye in the Sky surveillance cameras will soon total 81 in the city.

"Technology is not a luxury in Camden," Wexler said, "it's a necessity."

John Williamson, president of Camden's Fraternal Order of Police, the officers' union, isn't opposed to the new tools. But gizmos can't compensate for inadequate staffing, he cautioned.

"At the end of the day, we still need police officers," Williamson said.

In the meantime, Thomson meets daily with representatives from federal, state, and county law enforcement agencies to go review crime data and strategies.

The Police Department has leased a 15,000-square-foot office space in Camden that serves as a hub for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals Service, New Jersey State Police, and the County Prosecutor's Office, all of which have a stake in Camden and are working together to combat crime.

Ramsey, Philadelphia's police commissioner, said Thomson's greatest challenge in a tough economic climate would be keeping his officers focused.

"What happened to his department," Ramsey said, "is devastating."

 


Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917 or cvargas@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Darran Simon contributed to this article.