On a sweltering July day last summer, a group of prominent South Jersey officials walked into the situation room inside the chief’s wing of the Camden County Police Department. We were there to provide state Senate President Steve Sweeney with an overview of the most impactful policy he supported in his tenure in the state Legislature — the creation and operation of a brand-new police department. Sweeney met Camden city native Chief Gabe Rodriguez for the first time and got to tour the facility and talk about the changes and significant reduction in crime since its inception in Camden city.
Sweeney (D-West Deptford) knew the importance of Camden city to South Jersey and to the state, which is why he advocated for the change in early 2011. He knew that, if the city could be resurrected with a new public safety apparatus, private investment would follow. He knew that, if the state’s Department of Education could create better educational options in the city, that would lift the graduation rate and then provide a correlating drop in crime. In short, Sweeney knew that a rising tide would lift all boats in the city and further on in South Jersey.
And there we stood, in the training room of the department as our command staff discussed the strategy behind investing in training, community engagement and accountability, making the department what it is today. They talked about rethinking the principles of policing and building an agency lauded by President Barack Obama and used as a model for police departments throughout the world. Sweeney discussed the changes he saw that day and commended the officers for their focus on deescalation and creating time and distance to stabilize situations.
In fact, when Sweeney endorsed the idea of setting up a new police department in Camden city, he did it with a bipartisan cast of elected officials, including former Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Furthermore, it was Sweeney’s ability to work with others across the aisle to get big things done, from pension reform to overhauling the Transportation Trust Fund and more. That said, I want to concentrate my words on what he has done on the local level, suspecting many of his exploits will be covered by his 39 peers in the state Senate.
Much has been said about Sweeney’s tenure, but I want to underscore his incredible moral compass and his ability to always accomplish the public policy that bettered the lives of all residents in South Jersey. Monuments to his efforts are everywhere in South Jersey. His advocacy and power of persuasion led to:
- An exponential expansion of Rowan University;
- A drop in homicides in the city of Camden by almost 70%;
- A $250 million reconstruction of the Walter Rand Transportation Center.
Sometimes, imitation is the highest form of flattery. My colleagues and I in Camden County have copied some of Sweeney’s signature projects from when he was a freeholder in Gloucester County, like his sports complex for the disabled, the Gloucester County Veteran Cemetery and an aggressive push to consolidate services in order to save taxpayers money.
Much has been made of Sweeney’s accomplishments in the state Senate, and rightfully so. But, for me and my colleagues, he always embraced the fateful words from the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, who famously said, “all politics is local.” No one knew that better than Sweeney, and no one else in modern state history has put that into practice more than Sweeney.
However, this is not a eulogy, and I know we will continue to work with Sweeney in the future. He has big plans in the coming years, and we are all looking forward to a time when he is ready to formally announce them.
Louis Cappelli Jr. is the director of the Camden County board of commissioners and an architect of the Camden County Police Department that started patrolling Camden city on May 1, 2013.
Cappelli was joined at the meeting by U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-1st Dist.), Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen, state Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-Camden) and County Commissioner Al Dyer.