Could Camden residents finally have a reason to be optimistic?

New police statistics show total crime - violent and nonviolent - plummeted nearly 30 percent in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the same quarter in 2013.

There were three fewer homicides, dropping the total to 10, reflecting a 23 percent drop compared with 13 during the same period last year. Assaults with a firearm plunged 45 percent.

"I believe this is the beginning of a resurgence," said Camden resident Wren Ingram. "I have felt hope many times before, but this is completely different. It's the absolute truth."

For decades, Camden has been plagued by crime and frequently earned the unfortunate title of "America's Most Dangerous City."

Last May, a newly formed Camden County Police Department took over from the disbanded Camden City Police Department. So the new statistics are based on one quarter under the new force and are compared to the same quarter under the old force.

The new force implemented crime-fighting devices such as license-plate scanners, a full deployment of 160 "eye-in-the-sky" cameras, and other high-tech equipment that remotely monitors whole swaths of the city.

The first quarter figures show 875 total offenses recorded in contrast to 1,228 in the same period last year. As a result, that means the effective crime rate dropped from 15.89 crimes per 1,000 residents to 11.32.  Even better news: Both violent and nonviolent crimes were down.

Though the new statistics give hope, they reflect only one quarter, which is not enough to prove a sustained trend. Crime rates rise and fall due to a variety of complex reasons. Actually, overall crime has been falling in many American cities.

Though snowstorms blanketed the region for much of the winter, county officials don't believe that caused the drop in criminal offenses in Camden.

"I don't think the weather has affected the number of murders in Philadelphia this year," said Camden County Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli. According to the Philadelphia Police Department, the number of homicides in the city rose 13 percent during the same time frame, and aggravated assaults with a gun slipped 6 percent.

Cappelli believes there are three reasons crime has dropped in Camden: an increased number of police on the street, a change in attitude toward police by the city's residents, and the leadership of Chief Scott Thomson and his command staff.

"We have significantly increased the number of police and in June, we'll be adding more to bring the total up to 411 officers," Cappelli said. "Chief Thomson has been able to change the culture of the department, and the citizens of Camden are now welcoming the officers with open arms to help fight, and prevent crime."

Police are also spending less time in their cruisers and more time on the street. Though the changes during the last 24 months have often felt like a "roller-coaster ride," Thomson said morale has improved, the department has successfully made the transition to a "public-safety paradigm," and there's now an active, working collaboration with the community.

"We're not doing this by militarizing the neighborhoods," Thomson said. "We're doing this by having cops walk the beat and getting to know people in their homes and address the quality of life issues that are most important to them."

In addition to sharp declines in homicide and aggravated assaults with a gun, other violent crimes also dropped in the first quarter, the statistics show. Robberies were down 18 percent, rape was down 8 percent, and the number of assaults without a firearm was down 20 percent.

Nonviolent crime took a similar dive. The number of burglaries tumbled 33 percent and the number of motor vehicle thefts plunged by 48 percent.

"What's been key is that we have the governor, our freeholder director and mayor all rowing in the same direction on this. And it's created a heck of a current," Thomson said. "From where I sit, the support to accomplish this mission is unprecedented."

Ingram, a 13-year-resident of the city's Fairview neighborhood, said the evidence is everywhere.

Police have become more respected fixtures in the neighborhoods, she said.

"And the culture has absolutely changed," she said. "The new recruits are very approachable. Even children are approaching them, which, before this, almost never happened.

"Children in this city used to be taught that law enforcement was the enemy, so this is a refreshing change."

Ingram is no longer afraid to walk to community meetings after dusk. She said police walking the sidewalks has become an effective deterrent to crimes of opportunity. And, with police making more frequent traffic stops, her quality of life has improved appreciably.

"It's very simple things," she said. "With the old police force, if someone was rolling down the street blasting their music at 10,000 decibels, they'd roll by the cops and not even bother to turn it down. Now they go quiet before they even get close."

"It's like Big Brother, but I just don't care," Ingram said of the cameras. "I remember reading Orwell's 1984 and being scared to death, but here we are now and I'm perfectly OK with it."

With the stunning decline in crime, the city needs only one more thing, she said.

"If they don't get jobs, things will stay the same," Ingram said. Still, she's optimistic. "I do feel a great deal of hope, but it's second nature for us to wait for the other shoe to drop. If Camden is going to rise up, it's now or never."

Note: This story was updated to reflect that the new Camden County Police department is fully unionized.

Contact Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or Follow @samwoodiii on Twitter.
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