Community policing brings hope to Camden

CAMDEN, N.J. -- When Camden County police officer Virginia Matias reads to kindergarteners each week, she's establishing a connection that she hopes will extend beyond the classroom.

"It's good to start early," Matias said. "When I was growing up, I didn't have anything like that with police officers."

When not in classroom, Officer Matias patrols the streets of North Camden on foot, checking in on neighbors and greeting people.

"We are knocking on doors, introducing ourselves - letting them know that we're here to serve them," Matias said.

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Officer Matias speaking with schoolkids.

CBS News

It is an attitude many in Camden are still getting used to. In 2012, Camden was known as America's most dangerous city after breaking its own record of 67 homicides - in a city with less than 77,000 people.

In 2013, Camden eliminated its entire police force that was plagued with corruption and budget cuts, and replaced it with a new one, run by the county.

"The organization that we created was one in which a culture, from day one, was that our officers would be guardians, and not warriors," said Chief Scott Thomson. "Our handcuffs and our service weapons would be tools of last resort."

A total of 411 officers were hired, up from 250. There are now fewer squad cars and desk jobs, which means more boots on the ground. Last year homicides dropped 42 percent. The average response time to 9-1-1 calls is now less than 5 minutes, down from more than 60 minutes, three years ago.

"By having officers out of their squad cars and walking their beats and riding bicycles, there is an enhanced level of human interaction between the officer and the residents," Chief Thomson said. "The byproduct of that is enhanced relationships, and it sets legitimacy and trust."

The city also installed 121 new surveillance cameras. Chief Thomson asked community leaders to help out by monitoring surveillance cameras from their home computers. Homicides fell by 42 percent last year. Chief Thomson credits part of that success to community policing.

"What it's done is its redefined the relationship between the police department and its people," he said.

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Camden County police officers Dan Levy, left, Raphael Thornton, right, and Jarrod Broadway walk together as they patrol in Camden, N.J.
AP / Mel Evans

Almost half of the entire Camden County police force is represented by minority officers. Matias, a 28 year old Dominican, is the face of this new change.

"When I was growing up it was very unsafe. A lot of crimes...I would call it living in a bubble."

At 17, Matias lost her uncle, who was shot and killed in the same neighborhood she is now protecting. Her work was recognized by the White House last month, where she was one of the six police officers invited to discuss community policing with President Obama.

20-year-old Jeremy Lopez has been living in Camden his whole life, and he notices a difference. Recently his family called police because of a neighborhood dispute.

"I swear there were like six cops cars that came... within, like, maybe ten minutes max," Lopez said.

Rev. John Parker leads a congregation of about 500. He believes it's the police chief that is making a difference.

"I think it's the heart of your chief," Rev. Parker said. "And when you have a heart, then that spreads through your crew."

But Eugene O'Donnell at John Jay College of Criminal Justice is skeptical of community policing.

"Truth is police-work can be adversarial, and the community sometimes wants police-work to be adversarial," said Prof. O'Donnell. "They want police to go after significant crime and disorder issues. Trying to reconcile those two things is not easy."

Camden already recorded five homicides this year. As for Officer Matias, eliminating violence starts with earning the trust of her community. And that is why she will continue to read to the next generation that has the power to change Camden's storyline.