“Camden still has many miles to go to shed its reputation as one of America’s most dangerous cities, but the progress being made by the new police force has brought that goal much closer to reality. – Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer, April 7, 2014
The accolades he has received of late are flattering, concedes the Rutgers graduate who heads the newly constituted Camden County Police Department, but they’re all secondary to what really matters: Fewer murders in his city mean fewer mothers who have to bury a child.
Crime in Camden – both violent and non-violent – plunged nearly 30 percent in the first quarter of 2014 compared with the same period in 2013. Chief J. Scott Thomson credits the significant change largely to the community-first atmosphere he is building within the 411-member force, one designed to foster trust and engagement in the city’s 21 neighborhoods.
“Crime stats are not just numbers – each figure represents a human being who was victimized,” says J. Scott Thomson, a 22-year veteran of law enforcement who received his bachelor of art degree in sociology from Rutgers-Camden.
In August 2012, Camden Mayor Dana Redd announced controversial plans to dissolve the 142-year-old city police department and replace it with a county-wide force. Thomson, who in 2008 became chief of the city force, was tagged to oversee the transfer and to remain at the helm of the new entity.From the start, he envisioned fewer cops driving in cruisers and more officers walking on the streets: knocking on doors to introduce themselves, chatting with residents in their homes and going the extra mile to build community. The model is based on the 1829 philosophy of Sir Robert Peel, who believed the police should be a part of their community, rather than apart from it.
“At the foundation of everything we do is the understanding that nothing builds trust like human contact. I can give speeches all day long, but if there’s no personal interaction it’s all for naught,” says Thomson.
In addition to introducing license-plate scanners, eye-in-the-sky cameras and other high-tech anti-crime devices, Thomson has instituted his “boots on the ground” policy, and is gearing up to open two neighborhood substations to create an even more prominent footprint in the community.
His “Service Before Self” credo – emblazoned on the shield he wears over his heart and incorporated in the every officer's solemn oath of office – is rapidly becoming recognizable throughout a city once infamous as America’s most crime-ridden.
His father died at an early age, and Thompson was raised by a single mother who often worked double shifts to feed him and his sister. His Camden roots date back to his grandparents, who worked at the Camden Shipyard and RCA.
The first police officer in his family, he put himself through Rutgers working nights as a patrolman in nearby Pennsauken after spending a summer as a cop in Avalon. But his heart was in urban policing, and his introduction to what he calls “the culture of violence” was immediate, brutal ... and sobering.
His second night out on his first assignment in North Camden involved a double homicide at 7th and York Streets, one of Camden’s toughest areas: two men in their late 20s, shot in the head in gang-related activity. Even the passing of years has not erased from his mind the image of crowds gathering, the fear on bystanders’ faces, and the grief and shock of the victims’ loved ones.
Thomson credits a sociology professor at Rutgers, Katrina Hazzard Donald, with opening his eyes to the realities of social inequities and shaping the beliefs that would become the foundation for his policing. “Many of our neighborhoods have extraordinary challenges. I wanted to protect people from the worst society had to offer,” says Thomson, who also holds a master’s degree in education from Seton Hall.
Over the years, he has developed deep relationships many families touched by violent crimes, both to set an example for the rest of his organization and to satisfy a need deep within himself to stay connected to his city’s 77,000 residents.
“Every day I carve out time to patrol the streets – this is my therapy; it’s cathartic,” says Thomson. “Also, the mere presence of a guardian figure on a challenged city block can make the difference between something bad happening or not. It means a lot for people to have that one-hour respite from the fear of violence.”
Among those he has befriended is Jorge Cartegena, who was blinded three years ago in a hail of bullets between two gang rivals. Now 12 years old, he was walking home in the middle of a June afternoon to feed his pet parakeet when the incident occurred. “Jorge's resolve inspires me every day" says Thomson, who became the boy's godfather two years ago. He also has two boys of his own: Jack, 11, and Drew, 7.
Thomson met his wife, Zabrina, who is a double Rutgers-Camden alum who received her undergraduate degree in biology in 1996 and her master’s, also in biology, while on campus. She teaches biology at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees.