May 18, 2015
President Barack Obama heralded Camden as a “symbol of promise for the nation” Monday, crediting its revamped police department for diminishing crime rates in a city once “written off as dangerous beyond redemption.”
“If it is working here,” Obama said. “It can work anywhere. … Camden is showing that it can be done. I want America to show everybody around the world that it can be done.”
Obama’s praise came as he announced new restrictions on the use of military equipment by police departments and released the findings of his Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
PHOTOS: The president visits Camden
Civil unrest has broken out in cities across the nation, prompted by the police-involved killings of unarmed black men. Demonstrators have questioned the use of lethal force while decrying racial profiling and police brutality.
“Communities are like bodies,” Obama said. “If the immunity system is down, they can get sick. When communities aren’t vibrant, where people don’t feel a sense of hope and opportunity, then a lot of times that can fuel crime and that can fuel unrest.”
Obama praised the Camden County Police Department for fostering positive relations within a city long known for being among America’s most violent.
Officials restructured Camden’s police department two years ago, a move that increased the number of police officers on the streets and emphasized developing a better relationship with the community.
Obama proclaimed the resulting statistics. Violent crime has dropped 24 percent. Murder is down 47 percent. Open-air drug markets have diminished by 65 percent.
“Nobody is suggesting that the job is done,” Obama said. “This is a work-in-progress. … But this city is on to something. You’ve made real progress in just two years. That’s why I’m here today – because I want to focus on the fact that other cities across America can make similar progress.”
“Nobody is suggesting that the job is done. This is a work-in-progress. … But this city is on to something," President Barack Obama told a Camden crowd Monday at the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
The president lauded Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson for instituting community policing policies and praised officers, like Virginia Mattias, for carrying them out.
Mattias, a Camden native, grew up in a city where many parents were afraid to let their children play outside. Her mother was robbed at gunpoint. Her uncle was shot and killed inside his own store.
“Instead of turning away from Camden, she decided she wanted to become a cop where she grew up,” Obama said. “She’s a constant presence in the community, getting to know everyone she passes on her beat, even volunteering in a kindergarten.
“Officer Mattias isn’t just helping to keep her community safe. She’s also a role model for young people of Camden.”
Mattias, who was not expecting to hear her name during the president's speech, said police build strong bonds within their community by engaging the residents they police. She reads to students once a week.
“They see me every Tuesday when I’m reading them a book,” Mattias said. “They say, ‘Officer Mattias is a nice person.’ That will create a bond with them early on.”
Obama, who earlier toured the department’s Real-Time Tactical Operational Intelligence Center, also met with several students, inquiring about the challenges they face growing up in a poor city with high crime rates.
“It was unbelievable,” said Jamal Holloway, a junior at MetEast High School. “I was scared to talk.”
Holloway said the students met with Obama for about 30 minutes, discussing Camden’s policing efforts. Holloway said he told Obama that he feels comfortable with the police, calling them a “neighborhood friend.”
“You have officers that go door-to-door and talk to the people,” Holloway said. “[Police] make sure they make a relationship early so [residents] know who they are.”
In his speech, Obama challenged Congress to invest greater in poor communities, like Camden and his hometown Chicago.
“The kids who grow up here, they’re America’s children,” Obama said. “Just like children every place else, they’ve got hopes and dreams and potential. If we’re not investing in them, no matter how good Chief Thomson and the police are doing, these kids are still going to be challenged.”
Earlier Monday, Obama released the 21st Century Police task force’s final report, which highlighted dozens of recommendations to improve policing.
The report instructed law enforcement agencies to institute cultures of transparency and accountability and for officers to serve more as guardians than as a warriors. Its recommendations range from enhanced officer training to improving the use of body cameras.
Obama established the task force last December after police-involved killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City raised questions of racial profiling, police brutality and community relations.
Violent protests erupted in Baltimore last month after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, died after suffering a spinal injury in police custody. Six officers have been charged in his death.
President Barack Obama meets with local law enforcement and young people from the Camden community at the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center on Monday, May 18, 2015, in Camden. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
The task force, co-chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, met with more than 100 law enforcement officials, civic leaders, researchers and academics.
The report cited Thomson as saying community policing must be a culture that permeates an entire police department — not just a specialized unit, strategy or tactic.
“It must be the core principle that lies at the foundation of a police department’s culture,” Thomson testified to the task force. “The only way to significantly reduce fear, crime, and disorder and then sustain these gains is to leverage the greatest force multiplier: the people of the community.”
Thomson told the task force that community policing begins with a respectful, street-corner conversation between an officer and resident. He stressed that interactions should extend beyond those related to an emergency or criminal investigation.
Ramsey said the recommendations outlined in the report can lead to successful policing, but he stressed they need to be implemented together.
“You can’t just piecemeal and cherry-pick which ones you want to do,” Ramsey said after the president's speech. “You have to really look at each and every one of them. … We make certain recommendations, that if they follow them, I think it will lead to more trust in the communities.”
Obama also announced plans to restrict federal agencies from providing certain military equipment to local law enforcement agencies, including grenade launchers, high-caliber weapons, bayonets and tank-like, armored vehicles that move on tracks.
Other equipment, like riot shields and MRAP (mine-resistant ambush protected) vehicles will require added justification for their use.
“Were going to prohibit some equipment made for the battlefield that is not appropriate for local police departments,” Obama said. “There is other equipment that may be needed in certain cases, but only with proper training.”
Obama, who spoke for about 25 minutes, excited the crowd at the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center as New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hopes and Dreams” blared from the speakers.