Data Suggest Significant Increases in Enforcement of Low-Level Offenses and Raise Questions About Accountability Systems

May 18, 2015

NEWARK — On his visit to Camden today, President Obama will hear in more detail about the successes of the recently formed Camden County Police Department, which has been lauded in many corners for its advances in community policing and a reduction in the impoverished city’s violent crime rate since it took over the city police department two years ago.

Chief Scott Thomson has been a national leader in promoting community policing, testifying before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing earlier this year. “Community policing cannot be a program, unit, strategy or tactic. It must be the core principle which lies at the foundation of a police department's culture,” he said. “Community policing is not an option, it's an affirmative obligation."

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey agrees with Thomson about the importance of community policing. At the same time, the ACLU-NJ is concerned about the sharp increase in arrests and summonses for low-level offenses in Camden since the new force took over. An emphasis on making arrests and issuing tickets for activities like riding a bicycle without a bell, disorderly conduct, or failing to adequately maintain lights or reflectors on a vehicle are counter to the practice of community policing. The ACLU-NJ is also concerned about some of the data related to investigations of excessive force complaints by Camden residents.  

“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 significant increase in low-level arrests and summonses, combined with what appears to be the absence of adequate accountability for excessive force complaints, raise serious concerns. 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."

Community policing is premised on building relationships and trust between police officers and the communities they serve. Focusing police resources on criminalizing minor misbehavior can lead to greater mistrust and a feeling of harassment by the police. Arrests and summonses for low-level offenses can have a spiraling effect that could lead to people losing their jobs, public benefits or immigration status. These sanctions can also result in hundreds of dollars in fines and a criminal record that makes it harder to get a job in the future.

“Aggressively enforcing low-level offenses will only serve to escalate tensions and make communities less safe,” said Ofer. “In a city plagued by poverty and disenfranchisement, funneling more people into our bloated criminal justice system harms families and communities and blunts the kind of community development that the people of Camden deserve.”

Ofer commended the new Camden County police force for emphasizing greater engagement with community members, patrolling the streets on foot rather than in cars, and in general building enhanced relationships. An example of the improved practices includes a reduction in police response times to an average of 4.4 minutes from a horrendous 60 minutes in the past.

But, Ofer added, “Before we hold Camden up as a model of community policing, we must address the troubling indicators that point to Camden’s use of practices that appear to take a page from a broken windows approach to policing. We know from cities across the country that broken windows policing often leads to distrust and alienation between communities and the police.”

PETTY OFFENSES

The arrest and summons data, first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, for the first full year of the Camden County Police Department include the following examples, which compare the periods of July 2012 through June 2013 and July 2013 through June 2014 (the county force took over in May 2013):

- Summonses for riding a bicycle without a bell or without a light increased from three to 339.

- Summonses for disorderly conduct increased 43 percent, from 1,766 to 2,521.

- Summonses for failure to adequately maintain lights or reflectors in a vehicle increased 421 percent, from 495 to 2,579.

- Summonses for tinted car windows increased 381 percent, from 197 to 948.


COURT CASE LOAD

The marked increase in enforcement for low-level offenses has ballooned the Camden Municipal Court caseload by 29 percent. Unlike the Superior Court, which handles serious indictable offenses (felonies), the municipal court handles low-level arrests and summonses.

Nearly 125,000 cases were filed between July 2013 and June 2014 in Camden Municipal Court, up from 97,000 the previous year. In other words, even if every single Camden resident — adult and child — were hauled into Municipal Court, there would still be an additional 50,000 cases approximately. The volume has prompted the city to add a fourth judge, two public defenders, and a prosecutor. The court’s administrative staff has nearly doubled.

Adding tens of thousands of additional cases before the Camden Municipal Court will not make the City of Camden safer. For many years Camden has suffered from poverty and joblessness, and the city cannot arrest its way out of this problem. Funneling more people into the criminal justice system does more harm than good, as does imposing municipal court fines and fees on communities that can least afford them.

EXCESSIVE FORCE

The data also show 65 excessive force complaints filed against Camden police officers in 2014, an escalation from the number in previous years and the most complaints against any department in the state of New Jersey during the same period. The number of complaints exceeded the combined totals reported by the departments in Newark and Jersey City, the two biggest cities in the state with hundreds more officers.

In addition, according to reporting by The Philadelphia Inquirer, not one of the 65 excessive force complaints filed in 2014 has been sustained. The report suggests that the department has finished investigating 44 of the 65 complaints and dismissed all of them. The remaining 21 are pending. If true, such numbers raise serious concerns about systems designed to ensure accountability.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Thomson testified before President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which made several recommendations for police departments, and Thomson is already in the process of implementing several of the recommendations. We encourage the Camden County Police Department to adopt, at the very least, these recommendations from the President’s Task Force:

- Begin reporting data on a monthly basis on stop-and-frisk, summonses, use of force complaints, and arrest practices. The Newark Police Department adopted such a policy on stop-and-frisk reporting nearly two years ago and recently expanded that reporting to all summonses and arrests as part of its creation of a civilian review board to oversee the police department. We encourage Camden to do the same.

- Adopt policies that discourage arrests or summonses for minor infractions.

- Require police officers to provide their names to individuals they have stopped, along with the reason for the stop, the reason for a search if one is conducted, and a card with information on how to file a complaint in cases of wrongdoing.

- Establish civilian oversight over its police department, which will strengthen trust with the community. A good model for Camden to adopt is the police civilian review board recently enacted by Mayor Ras Baraka in Newark. 

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