President Obama called Camden "a symbol of promise for the nation" Monday as he lauded police there for building relationships with residents, and announced federal initiatives to improve trust between police and communities nationwide.
"Camden and its people still face some very big challenges," Obama told an invitation-only audience of at least 150 people at the Salvation Army's Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. "But this city is onto something."
The president also announced tighter reins on a controversial federal program that transfers military gear to local police, saying such equipment can make officers look like an "occupying force."
At center stage in his nearly 25-minute speech, however, was the Camden County Police Department, which took over policing in Camden City two years ago, when it replaced a disbanded city police force.
Obama said that prior to the takeover, "this city was written off as dangerous beyond redemption, a city trapped in a downward spiral."
Now, he said, violent crime has dropped, emergency response times are faster, and police and residents are establishing trust.
"You've made real progress in just two years. And that's why I'm here today," Obama said. "Because I want to focus on the fact that other cities across America can make similar progress."
Obama spelled out the recommendations of two task forces, one of them - the Task Force on 21st Century Policing - cochaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, who was in attendance Monday.
Obama created the panel headed by Ramsey in December, partly in response to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which sparked riots. This month, riots also erupted in Baltimore after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody.
The task force, which Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson testified about in February, called for independent prosecutors to investigate police shootings, granting civilians some oversight of their police departments, and more transparency in reporting police use of force.
A second presidential task force recommended that the federal government prohibit the transfer of military-grade weapons such as grenade launchers and .50- or higher-caliber firearms to police.
"It can alienate and intimidate local residents and send the wrong message," Obama said. "So we're going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments."
Obama also described an initiative to improve the computer systems of police departments, so they can track complaints more easily.
He said officers in Camden deal with 41 data systems and have to input the same information multiple times. An "elite tech team" was in Camden on Monday, Obama said, to help police confront the issue.
Thomson, whom Obama named several times in his speech, was cautiously optimistic afterward.
"Today was not a declaration of victory as much as a celebration of progress," Thomson said, "that we are being able to start to build trust within communities that for a very long time did not exist. We still have a long way to go, though."
Officials from Mayor Dana L. Redd to Gov. Christie have touted a sharp drop in homicides, from 67 in 2012, the city's deadliest year on record, to 33 last year. Many residents have reported hearing less gunfire and seeing fewer drug dealers on street corners.
But some, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, added caveats to the success story narrated by Obama and others.
In the hours before Obama's speech, the ACLU issued a news release criticizing the department for issuing tickets for petty offenses, such as riding a bicycle without a bell and loitering. Some residents have complained of feeling harassed as the citations for such offenses have reached their highest level in years.
"We value Chief Thomson's public commitment to community policing and his prioritizing of community engagement, but we are concerned that the numbers in Camden have begun to tell a different story," said ACLU-NJ executive director Udi Ofer.
"The reality is that more people are being arrested for petty offenses, which is overwhelming the courts and has the potential to create a climate of fear, rather than respect, in the community."
The Camden County Police Department last year drew the most excessive-force complaints in New Jersey, and at least a dozen individuals have filed suits or claims against it alleging improper arrest and use of force.
Redd dismissed those concerns when approached after Obama's speech.
"I think that Camden has a positive story to tell," she said. "There are always going to be naysayers."
Among those in attendance were U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman and former Gov. James J. Florio.
"This is a very important day for Camden," Florio said.
Obama praised Camden's officers for using foot patrols and reading at elementary schools. He said he spoke Monday to some of the city's children, who told him their parents still don't let them outside at times because of the city's violence.
"Children shouldn't have to be locked indoors in order to be safe. That's not right," he said.
Along the street outside the building where Obama spoke, several hundred people lined up to catch a glimpse of the president, cellphone and tablet cameras ready. The crowd spilled onto the street a few times before police ordered them to step back.
Ida Waters, 75, of Camden, who sat in her red lawn chair, called the county-run police force "fantastic."
Mitzi Collins, 56, a former Camden city police officer, expressed the opposite view: "It's not a national model."
When the motorcade finally arrived, loud applause and cheers erupted.
Corintha Mitchell, 40, held a large piece of cardboard. On the sign, scrawled in blue and red, was a message for the president: "Help us Obama. We love you."
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