It's not every day you get to visit the Oval Office and sit on a sofa telling stories to the president of the United States.
“I was so excited to be there,” said Camden County police Officer Virginia Matias. “At the moment, I was just grasping ‘Oh, this is the president speaking to me.'”
Matias was one of six law enforcement officials from around the country selected for a sit-down last week with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to discuss community policing and its positive impact.
Matias, 28, grew up in Camden and is intimately familiar with the city and its violence. Her mother was the victim of an armed robbery and an uncle was killed, she said.
Yet she had a good story to tell about what police officers in Camden – a city frequently cited as one of the most dangerous places to live in America – are doing to strengthen their relationship with residents.
Matias said officers are trying to talk with residents and develop relationships - she makes a point of saying “hello” and learn the names of citizens while walking her beat. This helps establish trust making it more likely people will provide her with useful information, she said.
The focus on community policing since 2012 has led to significant declines in murders and violent crimes in the city. Other police departments nationwide have reported similar success.
Matias, whose family is originally from the Dominican Republic, can’t remember word-for-word what Obama said during her hour-long meeting – she was anxious. But the feelings from the day are vivid.
“We were nervous, he was trying to make us feel as comfortable as he could,” Matias said. She said Obama welcomed them into the Oval Office, asked them to take a seat on one of the couches and listened to their stories.
“We were able to express ourselves and say everything,” Matias said. “He wanted to hear our feedback as well.
“He recognized that we are doing a good job.”
The meeting came as the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing develops a report on how to improve relationships between the police and their communities. Obama created the task force in the wake of several deadly encounters involving police and members of minority communities, including the police-involved choking death of Eric Garner in New York City and shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Those cases led to nationwide demonstrations.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey co-chairs the task force.
Matias said Camden’s community policing efforts were helping and that she felt honored to be chosen for the meeting.
“I’m living proof of what we are doing,” she said.