Camden Gives Democratic Policing a Chance


Amid the debates about law enforcement and urgent calls for reform, one police department is responding with a concrete, innovative strategy. This month, the Camden County Police Department in New Jersey (CCPD) is partnering with the Policing Project to make its community policing efforts more democratic: it will give Camden residents a role in writing the rules that officers follow.

CCPD has invited community members to determine the design and implementation of its new body-worn camera program. Community members will help tackle difficult questions about the cameras, and provide input on how the department should balance concerns about privacy, safety, and accountability.

Last year, New Jersey gave grants to 176 police departments to buy more than 5,000 body cameras. CCPD, one of the beneficiaries of these grants, launched its body-worn camera pilot program at the beginning of February. With guidance from the Attorney General’s Office, CCPD designed a provisional policy outlining rules around activation and access to footage from the cameras. A small group of officers is currently piloting the cameras.

Two principles underlie this effort. First, there must be clear rules to guide officers’ use of body-worn cameras, and second, these rules must have democratic input and approval.

Although CCPD drafted a provisional set of rules for the implementation of the pilot program, it is seeking meaningful community input before it finalizes those rules and expands the size of the program. CCPD has posted the policy on its department website so organizations and interested residents can read it and upload written comments. With the help of the Policing Project, CCPD has also developed an online community survey that will give residents an opportunity to express their views on some of the key issues surrounding the use of body-worn cameras.

On March 10th and 11th, CCPD and the Policing Project will host two community forums. These forums will bring residents and community leaders together to ask questions and share concerns about the provisional body-worn camera policy. After conducting the community forums and collecting the online survey responses, CCPD and the Policing Project will produce a report that summarizes all the comments received and explains how each concern will be reflected in CCPD’s final policy.

CCPD’s body-camera inititiave builds on its recent reform efforts. Since 2013, CCPD has used community policing and data collection to build greater trust among community members and police officers. Officers now walk their beats instead of driving in squad cars, and they take seminars in conflict de-escalation. Chief Scott Thomson measures his officers’ success “not in tickets written, but in the number of children riding bicycles on the street.”

However, this is the first time that CCPD has democratized its rulemaking process by inviting community members to participate. “We all agree that police should be subject to some degree of civilian oversight,” said Barry Friedman, Director of the Policing Project. “The issue is how to make that oversight effective. By asking for community input on the rules that govern body-worn cameras, CCPD is creating a model for what democratic governance and civilian oversight of police can look like.”

Body-worn cameras have been touted as an essential instrument for building community trust. Many advocates argue that the cameras increase transparency and accountability, as evidenced by the fact that throughout the country, cameras have already captured confrontations between police officers and civilians.

No instrument of reform, however, is universally or inherently “good.” The potential for body-worn cameras to make police officers more accountable and policing more transparent depends on how they are used: if the cameras are never on or the public never sees the footage, the cameras do little to increase community trust. On the other hand, if cameras are always on and the footage is always available to the public, there are complicated questions of protecting citizen privacy, as well as who pays for the costs of storing all that footage. For the benefit of community members, as well as law enforcement, police departments need clear guidelines to determine how police body-cameras should be used.

The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) recommends that police departments “engage their community before rolling out” body-worn camera programs. The primary goal of the online survey and the town halls is to ensure that community members in Camden are involved in this policymaking process. But the hope is also that this process may serve as a model for other police departments. This could be another way in which, in the words of President Obama, Camden’s police reform will be “a symbol of promise for the nation.”