Marking 10 years of service to our community

Every morning, I wake up early and my first thought goes directly to “I wonder how my community faired over the early morning hours last night.” I immediately look through my emails to see if we had any violent crime — if so, I jump on the phone with Camden County Police Chief Gabriel Rodriguez to ask how we can help the crime victim, what led to the incident and how close we are to bringing in a suspect.

The chief and I were both raised in Camden city and have seen it evolve over time. We were kids during some of our city’s most difficult moments, including deindustrialization, disenfranchisement, disinvestment and a skyrocketing violent crime rate. These broad macro events impacted our families, made life harder for us and our neighbors and drove both of us into public service. Like many of us here in Camden, we were resilient, and our combined motto was to never give in to the negativity no matter how bad it gets.

We both took separate paths into public service. I went to Temple University, being mentored by the renowned basketball coach and leader in Philadelphia, Coach John Chaney. And, on the other side, Chief Rodriguez had a short apprenticeship as a baker at Santana’s Bakery in East Camden before joining the police department at 19. Now, together, we closely go over the uniformed crime report numbers every week and we talk about how far the city has come since those dark days.

As of today, homicides are down more than 74% and total violent crime is down almost 50% from this same time in 2012. This is an amazing turn of events from a decade ago. And, since we are marking the 10-year anniversary of the department this year with the official swearing-in of former Chief Scott Thomson on May 1, 2013, I think it’s important to point out some of the large steps forward the city has taken since that time.

We launched one of the most progressive and innovative community policing programs in the nation — one that President Barack Obama said was a “model for the nation.” The agency made seniors and children a priority and made engagement with neighbors a frontline principle. In addition, transparency and accountability have been the cornerstone of our foundation, with every officer equipped with a body-worn camera and a policy developed by the New York University’s Policing Project to accompany those tools.

Today, we look at the cumulative total decrease of violent crime that’s down by more than 40% and a decrease in homicides of 60% year over year since 2012. Going back to 1974, when the city recorded almost 11,000 crime victims, in 2022, that number was just over 3,000. Additionally, based on the 67 homicides that took place in 2012, there have been 360 fewer homicides over the last 10 years. Additionally, the city has seen a 62% decrease in shootings since 2012, the last full year of operation for the Camden City Police Department.

My neighbors and residents all remember what the violence was like before my predecessor, Mayor Dana Redd, signed a shared service agreement with the Camden County board of commissioners to reform policing in the city. We know someone was getting shot every 32 hours and children couldn’t come out of their house to play on the sidewalk. We know that our parks were occupied by drug dealers and more than 175 open-air drug markets operated with impunity within our 9 square miles, selling poison in our community. Furthermore, I know Miss Jones couldn’t walk to her corner bodega for milk without stepping over someone in the throes of substance abuse.

Also, let’s look at what the progress on the public safety front has meant to our community: The largest employer in the county is planning on making an historic investment in the city at Cooper University Health Care and MD Anderson Cancer Center. Without these gains, the chairman of the board of Cooper, George Norcross, Gov. Phil Murphy and former Gov. Chris Christie would not have announced a multibillion-dollar investment and expansion into our city.

Now, 10 years after the start of Metro, I have outlined several positive steps we’ve taken to save lives, curtail trauma and provide children with safe corridors. That said, while things continue to improve, we need to do more, and we still have miles to go and promises to keep in our city. In short, this is no time to rest on our laurels. My community deserves nothing less than all of us working on behalf of the city to keep our word and deliver for them. The Camden County Police Department has been a tremendous step in that direction, but we still have more work to do.

Victor Carstarphen is now in the second year of his first term as the mayor of Camden city.