Camden Deputy Police Chief John Scott Thomson yesterday was promoted to chief of police, taking over a department struggling to control drug dealing, gang warfare, and a homicide rate on a record pace.
New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram also announced the Camden Community Safety Initiative, designed to more than triple the officers on the streets. The program will station at least one patrol car in each section of the city for 24 hours a day, and allow for large numbers of officers to be deployed at once.
Milgram named Louis Vega, a former New York police officer with 40 years of urban experience, the city's new civilian police director, who is responsible for policy and budget issues. The police force has been under state control since 2003.
Joined by rows of police officers and local and state officials, Milgram said the appointments and initiative were critical to transforming Camden from a violence-ridden city into a community where parents are not afraid to walk their children to school.
"This is a drastic step and a drastic measure we have taken because the circumstances we are in are drastic," Milgram said.
With 34 murders so far this year, compared with 47 in all of 2007, the city of 80,000 is on a pace to match its record of 58, set in 1995.
The latest victim, Ryan Richardson, 19, was shot once about 12:30 a.m. yesterday after getting into an argument near Olive Street in the Morgan Village section, authorities said. Police said they had no suspects.
The promotion of Thomson, 36, was the sixth leadership change in six years for Camden's beleaguered department. He replaces Edward Hargis, who announced his retirement July 18 after less than seven months as chief.
Yesterday, Thomson said the new initiative called for each of the department's 414 officers to aggressively target drug dealing, gun violence, gang activity and other crimes.
"We have a lot of work to do," he said. "And my message to the members of this organization is not going to be, 'Go do this.' It's going to be, 'Follow me.' "
The attorney general, the Camden County prosecutor, and the city's state-appointed overseer all have input into how the Police Department operates, a bureaucratic structure that some believe may have been a factor in Hargis' decision to leave - though Hargis said he was retiring to pursue a job in the private sector.
Thomson, a Rutgers University-Camden graduate who lives in Washington Township with his wife and two children, joined the department in 1994 and has overseen its criminal investigations division.
Vega, who grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., replaces John Huertas, the acting police director since January.
In addition to his work in New York, Vega served as assistant chief to Miami Police Chief John Timoney, formerly the Philadelphia police commissioner.
Under the Community Safety Initiative, officers in specialized units, such as traffic and tactical forces, and in nonessential, administrative and support positions will be reassigned to the street. Administrative and support staff who are not redeployed in the plan will be given street duty twice a week.
Homicide, anticrime, shooting-response and narcotics investigators will be combined into a Violent Crime Task Force. And detectives will no longer be assigned to units devoted to specific crimes such as domestic violence, arson, auto theft and juvenile offenses.
Officers will also be expected to get out of their cars and talk to the people who live and work in the neighborhoods, Thomson said. Officers will be held accountable not only for stopping crime but for preventing it, he said.
Last night, police officers fanned out across Camden to carry out the first night's test of the system. Dozens of police cruisers went out across the nine-square-mile city, a helicopter circled, and police calls began coming into the department's new command center.
The initiative was modeled after a plan that has reduced crime in East Orange, N.J., by 70 percent since it began in 2004, Milgram said.