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Camden, NJ, Named the 'Un-Ferguson.' Um, What?

Kate Zernike's New York Times article"Camden Turns Around with a New Police Force" shared some rare good news about Camden, New Jersey, but without appropriate context or history, and it was framed with a cringe-worthy comparison to Ferguson, while simultaneously, and ironically, discrediting local NAACP leadership.

This one tweet, retweeted by Kate Zernike, sums it up, calling Camden the "un-Ferguson." But it's not. Camden's story is more complex than that, and it faces many of the systemic challenges around police treatment of African-Americans and other minorities that simmered under the surface in Ferguson.

A remarkable story by @kzernike in today's NYT: Camden, NJ, the "un-#Ferguson" http://t.co/Oc2q9aZzFQ

— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) September 1, 2014

First of all, the article inexcusably fails to talk about the origin of the crisis that led to Camden having so few police officers.

Camden has long had crime problems, but in 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cut municipal aid from the state. For cities such as Camden and Trenton, the across-the-board cut was catastrophic, and led to laying off of much of the police force. Comparing current crime numbers to those in the 2010-2012, in which the police force was ravaged by Christie's cuts, misses the broader story. Crime was going down in Camden in 2009 and 2010, and the numbers after the cuts were inflated via a political crisis.

The crime reductions in Camden are still good news, but not quite so unprecedented as the article would make us believe. The numbers of police officers in 2012 and the years just before were a low water mark. Numbers in the high 300s and even 400s were common in the decades before.

This is Christie's Modus Operandi. He starves urban areas of resources unless they do thing his way politically. It's how you end up with a school in Camden shared by a charter and a traditional school in which only the charter's half of the building is painted. Financial support goes to those who agree. The rest are starved.

And so it was with the police force. Camden was starved of resources for years, until the crisis was so bad that one of their only choices was to bust the police union, firing every single one of them and hiring many back under more favorable (for the city) contracts. The result was that the new police force had better culture and was cheaper, but also had fewer minorites and was less connected to the community.

How do we know? Colandus "Kelly" Francis, the head of the Camden County NAACP, collects records on each new hired police force. He said that the police force went from almost 70% minority to about 40%.

That same Colandus Francis serves as little more than a prop in the New York Times article. Robin Bernstein argued that minorities were often discredited in the New York Times with the phrase "he was no angel." She cites analysis by Kia Makarechi which shows:

A sample of the white folks the Times has called "no angel" includes infamous mobsters, murderers, a pornographer, and a Nazi. Black Americans described similarly by the paper include a basketball player, a singer, criminal suspects, and unarmed men killed by white people.

In this article, Colandus Francis is called one of "the most stubborn critics." His list of complaints is given little attention (about harassment for being pulled over for "tinted windows or playing loud music, or for rolling through stop signs"). Francis is there only to look ridiculous, his claims only "stubborn" in light of such amazing success. Immediately, a quote of someone more reasonable is given.

Except, Francis' concerns are reasonable in context. I've talked to him. He is not concerned about enforcement of stop signs, he's concerned about unequal enforcement through racial profiling. The argument is, is that a broken windows model of enforcing small crimes is nothing but an excuse to harrass minorities.

It's not just a problem in Camden. The idea that broken windows is the "new stop and frisk," a policy used to search any minority that looks suspicious, is an idea growing in popularity in Philadelphia and New York. It was also at the heart of the matter in Ferguson, where Michael Brown's encounter came about – allegedly – because he was walking with a friend in the street.

Which is all to say, there is a second narrative simmering under the surface in Camden. Over the summer, a video of an ugly police arrest went viral. Late in the video an observer says, "y'all supposed to serve and protect, not beat up and harass." It's a sadly familiar site, a minority on the ground, a police officer standing over him, community members distraught.

Camden County replied to the controversy by saying "it was a good arrest."

This is why it is so ridiculous to frame Camden as the un-Ferguson. There is no un-Ferguson. The issues of minority treatment in urban areas are deep and historical, and even the best efforts towards community policing can only address part of the problem. The new force seems to be making progress by having more police on the ground and using community policing methods. But the New York Times does a disservice by discrediting a black leader who is telling the wider story, one of simmering concerns of the treatment of minorities. Camden is not an exception.  

This post is cross-posted from the Local Knowledge Blog

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