Is Camden a model for the future of policing?


Camden, New Jersey (CNN)The beeping sound coming from a screen mounted on the dashboard of Lt. Zsakheim James’ police car was consistent. The screen was connected to a half dozen cameras on the patrol car’s trunk and scanned each license plate we passed, beeping when it found a car with expired plates or one that may have been involved in some sort of criminal activity.

The technology is just one of the many used by the Camden police department to fight crime in a city that, just a few years ago, was considered one of the most dangerous in America. Now, it’s hailed by President Barack Obama as an example for others.

Throughout the city, there are also microphones that record and locate gunshots and more than 100 surveillance cameras that watch the city’s streets 24 hours a day.

“You see this corner?” said Lt. James, a Camden native, as he pointed to an empty space. “This used to be filled with drug dealers.”

Down the block, school children were playing outside. Residents sat on their porches enjoying the first glimpse of summer. James pointed out new churches, schools and public housing units that resemble quaint townhouses.

Local officials say that Camden is getting better through a combination of sophisticated technology and old-fashioned police tactics like cops who walk the beat and talk to residents and shopkeepers.

Violent crime in the city — which includes murders, rapes and robberies — dropped 22% between 2012 and 2014. And while there are still areas of the city where drugs, prostitution and violent crime still linger, the decrease in crime was recently heralded as a national success story by Obama.

The President visited the city in May to highlight the administration’s police data initiative, a program that will initially help 21 police departments around the country better manage and use the data they collect from the technology systems they use.

The data initiative is a product of the president’s task force on 21st century policing which was created to provide recommendations on how to improve relations between police and the communities they serve. Police departments have been under increased pressure after the shooting deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and others prompted widespread protests against police brutality.

At the same time, many departments have ramped up their use of technology, including surveillance cameras, license plate readers and body cameras. The federal government is also beginning to offer grant money to police departments that want to purchase such technology.

Michael Lynch, the department’s chief data officer, said the department was experimenting with new forms of technology like using GPS to track officers who are on foot or bicycle patrol and improved record keeping systems. In September, the department will outfit 325 of its officers with body cameras.

In addition to tracking incidents of crime, analysts in the Camden Police department are also tracking how officers spend their time, including how long they spend on a call for service and the location of each police car.

“Everything is tracked,” said Lynch. “At no time is the officer unaccounted for.”