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February 19, 2015

Local officials address Obama police task force

Philly, Camden law enforcement leaders speak in Arizona

From his experience policing a city that has suffered through staggering amounts of violence, Camden’s police chief told a presidential task force on police-community relations last Friday, Feb. 13, in Arizona that more trust, not more arrests, was needed to keep communities safe.

Camden Police Chief J. Scott Thomson made the comments before the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was set up last year to find ways to improve the relationship between cops and their communities. 

President Barack Obama created the task force in the wake of public protests over the police-involved killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, as well as general allegations of police abuse in Cleveland.

“As little as 24 months ago, Camden had over 175 flagrant open-air drug markets,” said Thomson, according to his prepared statement. He was one of two local law enforcement officials to address the task force of about two dozen witnesses. “Historically, we would attempt to arrest our way out of the problem [and] ultimately cause more harm than repair.”

“Now, we’ve embraced our role as guardians and prevent drug dealing through walking beats and bicycle patrols,” he said.

The task force is chaired by Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey. Last Friday was one in a series of meetings and listening sessions the task force had planned.

Kevin Bethel, deputy commissioner of patrol operations for the Philadelphia Police Department, also addressed the task force. He began by emphasizing the scarring impact arresting children for minor infractions had on their future well-being.

“Zero tolerance that results in children being arrested for minor offenses does not contribute to maintaining a safe environment,” Bethel said, according to his statement. “It does contribute to the disparity in arrests” for students of color.

Bethel said that a program was developed alongside local organizations in Philadelphia to allow smaller crimes committed by young students to be dealt with by the schools and not through arrests.

“How fair can it be that prior to instituting our program, a 10-year-old child who walked into our school with a pair of scissors in his book bag would be arrested?” Bethel said.

“If we are to gain true legitimacy in communities across the country and put procedural justice into action, I submit that joining in collaboration with local, state and federal partners to attack the school-to-prison pipeline must be one of our top priorities,” he continued.

According to the White House website, an initial report by the task force is due to Obama in March.