Preet Bharara: Hey folks. Preet here. I’m off this week, but instead I’m excited to bring you a special episode of Stay Tuned, hosted by none other than my friend and CAFE Insider cohost, Anne Milgram. As the country grapples with the need for police reform, Anne sat down with Scott Thomson, the former police chief of Camden, New Jersey. Camden has become a national model for community policing following its decision in 2013 to disband its police department and build a new one from the ground up, and appointed Thompson to the position of police chief when she was attorney general of New Jersey, and the two worked closely together to set Camden on the road to reform. In their conversation, Anne and Scott reflect on their history together, the challenges they faced in Camden and the key decisions that led to the city’s turnaround. And now, I’ll turn it over to Anne.
Anne Milgram: Hi, all. It’s Anne Milgram, filling in for Preet this week. The Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country over the last few weeks have changed the national conversation about policing and its future. Just last week in Atlanta, we saw yet another fatal police shooting. That’s why I felt it was so important to sit down with Scott Thompson. Scott retired as Camden police chief last year after serving in the department for over 25 years. I appointed Scott to the position of interim police chief in 2008 when I was the attorney general in New Jersey, and then I formerly tapped him for the role before I left office in 2010. Under his watch, Camden went from being one of the most dangerous cities in the United States to becoming a national model for community based policing.
Today, the crime rate is its lowest in over 50 years, Scott has been recognized nationally for his achievements. He’s a recipient of many awards and his work was cited by President Obama who visited Camden and met with Scott in 2015, calling on Scott to testify for the task force report on 21st century policing. As we start to think about the big changes that need to happen in law enforcement across our country, there’s simply nobody better to hear from that Scott Thompson. Welcome, Scott. So Scott, Chief Thompson, we go way back. Do you remember when we first met in … was it 2007?
Scott Thomson: Yeah. I think I was in a room in which you came in and were addressing the leadership of the organization at the time. I think the first time that we actually spoke in a one-on-one fashion was in March of 2008 when we had a police officer gets shot eight or nine times in the line of duty. She was fighting for her life and you helicoptered down to the hospital to stop in and see her. I was the only one from the command staff that was there at the hospital. You came down, I briefed you very quickly on the incident of what occurred. I don’t think she was able to be spoken to or engaged because she was still in ICU and being worked on. But you went and spoke to her family and then we spoke very briefly afterwards.
Anne Milgram: The command meeting, was that the meeting that you have referred to as bloody Monday?
Scott Thomson: No, I think it was another meeting. It was one of the first ones that you had came to and just observed. It was the one in which the people were putting their best foot forward for you, because everybody knew the attorney general was there.
Anne Milgram: At that point in time you were probably about 13 years on the job. You and I are both graduates of Wreckers, right? Then you joined the force. Your time before that, you were … Just talk a little bit about your work with gangs and narcotics.
Scott Thomson: Yeah. When I first came on the police department in 1994, I was originally assigned to the uniform patrol division just like every new hire is. I did my time with a field training officer. I was assigned to the North Camden section of the city in the first district. That has always been one of the most challenged sections of the city in many aspects, not just from a crime, but from the way it’s geographically located. It’s kind of broken off from the rest of the city. There’s only really three or four ingress egress points to that point of the city. When you’re in North Camden, you’re kind of in a city within a city. There was really strong drug gang violence at that time. That’s when a gang called the Sons of Malcolm X rolled the streets.
The initiation into this gang was basically a random shooting matter, and one night they had what was called tests night, where they were indoctrinating people into the gang and they went throughout the city and shot six or seven people and killed four of them, and a lot of them, almost every one of them were just innocent people. That was the underpinning of what the dynamics were on the streets within the city, and particularly within North Camden. So I did a few years in uniform. I then ended up being put on what was called the tactical force unit, which essentially was … It would be like a specialized unit within the organization that you worked steady night work, you worked 6:00 at night until 4:00 in the morning, and you just essentially ran the citywide jurisdiction.
You went from hot call to hot call. You didn’t go to the disturbance of the peace. It was the gun calls, the large fights, the crimes in progress, and generally that was the squad that would show up and was supposed to bring order to disorder. The culture within the organization was there were a lot of heavy handed tactics. When the task force showed up, usually it was to bring an end to whatever the problem was, and the manner in which they did it was as quickly and as forcefully as possible. I did that for about two years, and then I went over to the narcotics unit. In a city of nine square miles, we had about 175 open air drug markets at the time.
Anne Milgram: Camden was always a place where people came in from out of the city, right? To buy drugs?
Scott Thomson: Yeah. Camden, in cities of 50,000 or larger, is still to this day the poorest in the country. The per capita income is less than $14,000 a year. It’s a city of extreme poverty that’s surrounded by communities of effluents. Some blue collar towns. But several years ago there was Money Magazine. I think it was Money Magazine, had aimed Moorestown, New Jersey, which is literally 10 miles up the road as the best place in America to live, and 10 miles down the road in Camden was the nation’s most dangerous city to live. So you would have about 80% of the drug buyers were suburbanites. They would come in … They were the lifeblood to the drug gang culture. Yeah, that was what fueled the problem in large part.
Anne Milgram: When did you join the command staff? When were you first promoted?
Scott Thomson: I think I got my first promotion, it was ’99 or 2000. I had about five, six years on the job. I had came up number one on the sergeant’s list in the department. Because I came on number one that then chief had given me the choice of assignments, and I elected to stay where I was, which was with narcotics, and then I ended up … I got promoted up another rank in narcotics up to lieutenant, and then when I made captain, which would have been in probably 2005, 2006, I came back to work in the police administration building. So I had been detached out to working on task forces, working with the FBI and the DEA and the US Attorney’s Office and the State Attorney General’s Office. I was working remotely for several years, but then I came back within the organization overseeing investigations. It was around this time that you and I first started to intersect.
Anne Milgram: Yeah, you were a captain at the time?
Scott Thomson: I was a captain.
Anne Milgram: In 2007, I was looking back at the stats, it was a very bad year in Camden, and just so folks understand, I mean the AG’s office, the prior Peter Harvey was the AG in 2003. He had superseded the Camden Police Department, which is really an extraordinary thing. It doesn’t happen. That was the only police department out of 600 plus departments that was superseded during my time in office, that someone had had taken over. I came in 2007, I was sworn in June 29th, 2007, and the police department was still under state control. At first, we had police directors, so we had people on the ground, they were civilians. The idea had been that it would be better to have civilians and that’s the model I inherited, better to have civilians who weren’t part of the department who were overseeing public safety in the department.
Of course, as you know, we went through I think two or three of those on my watch, and then one interim chief. I had decided that it wasn’t working to have the outside civilian police director model. So we had another chief before we came to you. But just to highlight, I mean, 2007, there were 42 homicides. 2008, it was an even worse year. There were 54 murders, and I think you talk a lot about how little the department was clearing crimes at the time. But do you want to talk a little bit about that? Because I think people really focus … I certainly was struck when I looked last night at how many homicides there were. I’d known and of course at the time that I was brought back to that, but I was also struck by some of the comments you’ve made about how bad the department was at solving crimes.
Scott Thomson: Yeah. Well, one thing I think if I could just jump back, I think it’s important for people to understand because when you talk across the country to different law enforcement folks, often I’ll be asked questions of how you were involved with the way you were. In the State of New Jersey, the New Jersey attorney general has constitutional authority over all law enforcement in the State of New Jersey. So the New Jersey attorney general is the chief law enforcement officer in the state, and with a stroke of a pen, will provide directives that will set policy for all 550 police departments in the state. It’s the most powerful attorney general within their own state as far as scope over law enforcement. You don’t see that across the country in a lot of different attorney generals. Most of them have more of a consumer fraud, civil aspect and are really hands off when it comes to law enforcement.
Anne Milgram: I think that’s mostly because AGs are elected, not appointed. So New Jersey is one of only four or five states that are political appointments in some way, or New Hampshire is I think the legislature points. There are other states. Rhode Island is elected, but also has criminal jurisdiction. But most states don’t actually have the criminal jurisdiction, and I think a lot of that is because they’re politically elected not appointed. So the criminal thing is much more localized in those places. In New Jersey, it’s unified, there’s one person who oversees all the police departments, all the prosecutors. It’s really different.
Scott Thomson: Yeah. So I just think that’s important for context for a lot of people to understand how and why you were so involved with local law enforcement. When we look at, at that point in time, the best way that I found to be able to describe the organization at that point in time was that you could be the greatest cop in the world, and there were some really, really good ones, and you could also be the laziest, most corrupt cop in the world, and we certainly had them as well. Therein was the problem. There was no standard that was enforced, there were no systems of accountability to ensure that people were performing at at a certain level. So the variance at which the organization operated on a daily basis was really to the individual’s decision of whether they wanted to work or not when they showed up, and you would see that out on the streets as well.
Nobody ever went over our policies and procedures. Nobody went over training. We had had five leaders in five years at that point in time. The cultural current, the flow of water was really established by the labor union at the time, and their mindset was embrace the status quo. We’ll circle the wagons, and we’ll just outwait anyone that comes in and tries to give us direction. We’ll litigate, we’ll fight them and they’ll be gone soon. History had shown them for that to be a successful strategy and tactic to employ. So that’s what we were fighting against on that day when you put me in charge, and we turned around and tried to start it to make institute change.
Anne Milgram: Before we get to that day, and I think we should go into some detail on that day because it’s a story that I love the way you tell it. I think you and I may have slightly different versions of it, but I think it’d be fun to sort of … I think it’d be interesting to go through it together. But there are two things you said that I want to just follow up on a little bit. The first is how just this lack of accountability, the lack of training, the lack of policies. One of the things that I was struck by, and I don’t know if you would agree with this framing or maybe frame it differently, was just how much policing was based on gut instinct. Because there weren’t from policies and there weren’t clear standards, it was like everybody could tell a story of one time on this street corner there was a murder, so that’s the most dangerous street corner in the city, even though if you actually really looked at where crimes were happening, that might not have been the truth.
So yes, some of it was lazy policing and some of it was just this almost willful blindness or it’s maybe even unintentional blindness of just really just believing so much. I’ve talked about this as like Moneyball thing, when you looked at the Billy Beane and the Oakland As, how it used to be Scouts would go out and say, “I’ll tell you I can see it,” right? I can see when there’s a great pitcher or a great hitter, and then of course they pulled the data and the story was a pretty different one, right? That there is something to be said for that gut instinct, but that it really has to be informed by data and understanding what’s happening and whether you can do a better job and how … I constantly I read that book around, I don’t know, maybe some years later. But I remember having this moment of thinking part of our problem was … and I want to talk about unions in a second.
Part of our problem was just this incredible culture and institutional kickback, and part of it was also just that we made it okay to police in a way that really was completely disconnected from the truth of what was happening in the community or what was needed in the community. I don’t know if you would say it that way or a different way, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.
Scott Thomson: Yeah. Well, I think part of the problem that existed then was that we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and the Camden Police Department was very insular, and not unlike a lot of organizations around the country. We thought because we dealt with very high levels and rates of crime that we were the experts, and nobody could tell us otherwise. There was no benchmarking within that organization, meaning we didn’t go out and learn from other organizations. We thought that if we weren’t doing it, then it wasn’t best practice. We existed within this silo, and if you think about the organization itself, people would come into this silo at a very young age, early 20s. We were taught a certain way of doing things.
It was what was exemplified for us every day by our people of senior rank and senior positions. We essentially thought what we were doing was right. It’s interesting, and I’ve seen this in other departments across the country as well, and this is what you experienced when you came in, was that here you were as the attorney general sitting in a room watching and listening, and there were things that we were saying and doing that were just inherently wrong, inherently uninformed. We were putting our best foot forward. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. It wasn’t that it was even being cavalier. It was literally like we thought this was the way that you did things.
Anne Milgram: I remember you said recently something about the case clearance rate was something like 17%, right? So the vast majority of cases were going unsolved at that time.
Scott Thomson: Yeah. Because there was such high levels of mistrust between the community and the police, our ability to solve crimes, particularly the most egregious ones, shootings and murders, was abysmally low. To get people to come forward and provide eye witness testimony to be able to reach a probable cause to make a charge was virtually nonexistent. Again, you got to remember this is back in the mid 2000s, late 2000s, where cameras were just not ubiquitous. They weren’t all over the place. We would knock on the doors of people in the community, and we would ask them to tell us what occurred. You couldn’t blame them looking back on why they refuse to cooperate. We had very low levels of legitimacy, very low levels of being able to successfully remove people that were the influences of violence. For people that have very little means and resources and relocating is not an option for them, they had to live and exist there. They wouldn’t like what was occurring, but it would be to their detriment to try to do anything different.
Anne Milgram: In 2008, you were just deputy chief, and I think a lot of people don’t understand civil service in states and in police departments, but civil service really drives how people get promoted. There are tests that people have to take, officers have to take. You have to be at a certain rank, then you take the test in order to be promoted. The way it works across America is that, as a rule, police chiefs, they’re appointed by the mayor. They’re politically appointed, but they’re usually appointed after most police officers serve about 25 years on the job, and then they’re eligible for retirement. So what you usually see is police chiefs being people who are senior on the force, they have taken the test to be the chief to be considered for chief, but they’re promoted when they have 22 or 23 years on the force.
They often serve two and a half, three years and then they retire. They go on to private security jobs or teaching or other roles in the community. But basically that’s a really well-trodden experience in America. If we go back to 2008, I can say that I had hired folks and I … Look, I’d hired folks that came very, very highly recommended nationally to come in as police director. We then put in … and let’s just maybe tell the story of your promotion for a second. But I want to note that what happened with you, and I can’t emphasize this enough, you were 36 years old at the time. You were incredibly young, you had 14 years on the job, and you would have basically been promoted to chief in almost, in my view, in no other police department in America.
The reason that we could promote you to chief is that the governor, Governor Corzine at the time, had done a state takeover of Camden, their finances as well. A prior AG had taken over the police department, but then Governor Corzine took over the state finances and it was run by Judge Davis, who you and I both knew and loved and admire greatly, and who sadly passed away recently. He was able to basically … The civil service rules were suspended. A lot of the things and hurdles that I would have had to have gone through, I didn’t have to follow, and that’s important I think because the civil service rules have stopped, in my view, innovation from flourishing in departments. The most innovative officers are not the ones who are promoted, and usually people are promoted at the end of their career to be chief.
They’re on their way out with an eye toward their future outside of the police department and not inside the department. I wasn’t much older than you at the time. I think I was 37 maybe, a year older, but you were really young chief and it was just out of the norm. Before we put you in as chief, I had decided that I wanted to put in an interim chief in the city that I wanted to stop bringing in outsiders. We had not had success with it for a variety of reasons, I think. So I put in another chief. He came in, he was not long on the job and we had a huge battle over … Do you remember what we battled over?
Scott Thomson: The traffic unit.
Anne Milgram: The traffic unit, right? So this is a story neither of us really talk about, but I think it’s worth just delving into a little. Do you remember my opposition to the … What can you tell us what the traffic unit was?
Scott Thomson: Yeah. It was actually funny. At the time, the police department was like most troubled police departments in an urban environment, and it had become very political. There was favoritism, there were pet projects and pet units, and these favored individuals would get plum assignments and plum resources. At that point in time, there was a traffic unit that was just receiving all of the resources. I think it was a unit in a department that was the size of almost 400 cops. This was a unit that had about 20 officers, so they disproportionately had amount of officers assigned to them. Each officer had a summer car, a winter car and a motorcycle. All secondary employment would flow through them. They were given complete flexibility to arrange their schedules, their work schedules, which generally they did to accommodate secondary employment.
Anne Milgram: Just so people understand the secondary employment, these are private security details. So like the Triple-A baseball team, or Double-A, I can’t remember. The baseball team in Camden would say, “We want security here.” The aquarium in Camden would say, “We want security here,” and people want to hire police officers. So they could go in uniform, they then get paid by those outside places. They also continue to do their jobs, so they were still out doing traffic policing as a Camden police officer. But they were able to prioritize making this extra money through the private security details.
Scott Thomson: Right. It was moonlighting. It was sanctioned moonlighting, and they could essentially double and sometimes triple their salaries through this, by using taxpayer resources, and again, just the flexibility to be able to rearrange their own work schedule. They were not a part of any deployments that were or strategies for reducing crime. They essentially just did whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted. Even as an outsider, which you were, and when you were looking at the table of organization and you would see, we had trouble putting cops out into the challenged neighborhoods in functioning vehicles. Some of these police cars didn’t have seats in them, or they had holes in the floor, the lights and sirens wouldn’t work well.
You’d be driving around with headlights out on your car, radios wouldn’t work. Then you looked at a unit and you saw they all have brand new vehicles, and several of them, and you started to have some really good questions. I remember in that meeting, the answers you were getting weren’t good because there were no good answers. I remember watching you get white knuckled. I saw the grimace on your face when some of the replies were coming in confirming what you had suspected, and you composed yourself, you sat up straight in your chair and you said, “Chief, I can’t think of any other way to say this, but you do not have a traffic problem, you have a murder problem in this city. I expect you to deploy your resources consistent with that. Are we clear?” The leadership in the room, basically they wouldn’t even make eye contact with you. They were looking down, and they said, “Yes, ma’am,” and you said, “Good,” and then you got up and pretty much concluded that meeting.
Anne Milgram: Then it didn’t happen. This was before you became chief, right? Is that your memory, Scott? Or was that the meeting I had with you?
Scott Thomson: No, that was my memory, and I believe that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Anne Milgram: Yes, that’s what I remember too.
Scott Thomson: Yeah. I remember that they had submitted to you another table of organization where they just changed the name of the traffic unit to something else, but not … the only [inaudible] was just changed the name of it. When you peeled one layer of the onion bag, so exactly what it was, and then I don’t think you were interested in having any more conversations at that point in time.
Anne Milgram: Joe Cordeiro, who had been the police director in East Orange, he was former NYPD, had been a chief in Massachusetts. He was my head of law enforcement. He’s strategically amazing at thinking about reforming organizations. I remember sending him down after this other org chart had come out to basically pull the papers and figure out firsthand what was happening, and him coming back and saying nothing’s changed, right? That basically it’s status quo, different name, different number. I remember having this conversation with the first interim chief, and basically saying this is the decision you have to make, right? This story in some ways encapsulate some of the fight to reform because some of the local political leaders were not in favor of the work that we were trying to do.
The unions were definitely not in favor of the work we were trying to do, but also the internal leadership of the department, the institution itself, was really pushing back on reform, and also having somebody ask these questions of what works and what doesn’t work. I remember having this conversation with him and saying, the first interim chief and saying, “Look, there’s only one way we’re going to get rid of this unit, and are you with me? Are you not with me? You need to make this decision.” Then of course he quickly said, “I’m out,” right? He resigned. He did less than a year as interim chief. I mean, it was very, very quick. We called you, do you remember thinking … What were you thinking when we … I think it was Robert [Luggi] in my office called you and said, “Come in the next day.”
Scott Thomson: Yeah. I think it’s important for context too, that during this time when you were demanding the restructuring of the organization and the repurposing of personnel to be on the front lines combating the shootings and murders, if I remember correctly that January, we had 12 murders or 11 murders in January. So we were on absolute record pace, and your orders were consistent throughout. It was you need to get every gun and badge out from behind a desk or from behind some whatever assignment that is not contributing to making the streets safer, and they need to be assigned out to that forward position. That wasn’t a suggestion. That was an order from the attorney general, and it was pretty clear, and it was a time of crisis.
People were being victimized in the city at third world country rates. There was an absolute moral imperative that was driving why you were doing what you were doing. It just wasn’t changed for the sake of change. So when that had occurred, I remember that day that I went into work, again I was the deputy chief of investigations, and I was overseeing the assets that you had deployed down into the city. There was a tremendous amount of troopers and Division of Criminal Justice investigators and prosecutors investigators and Camden detectives. I went in that morning as I always did, and I briefed the leadership at that time. I was like, “Okay, I understand,” and then I left and did my day. I think I was heading towards … I was driving home and I think it was 7:00, 8:00 at night, and I got a phone call from somebody in the department, and they had said to me, “Did you hear that chief just resigned?”
At the time again, because we had had five leaders in five years at that point in time, most people were not staying more than a few months. So there was always these rumors going around about change and people being fired and people being brought in. I just dismissed it as a bad rumor, and I told the person, I said, “No, I just briefed them this morning. Nobody’s going anywhere.” The person said to me, “No. I got this straight from the HR department. The paperwork’s been turned in.” It’s like, “Wow, I didn’t realize that.” I then hung up the phone and then I called the leadership, and I said, “I just heard that you’re leaving,” and the exact response was, “Yeah, [inaudible] you can have it. I’m out of here.” I was like, “Oh, okay.”
I hung up the phone, and then it was probably about 10 minutes later as I was still driving home … My drive from work to home is, at that hour of the night, maybe 15, 20 minutes. So it was only a few minutes later, I’m driving down the same stretch of the road, and I looked down and Trenton, New Jersey is calling me, which is the capital, which is where your office was. I answered the phone and the voice on the other end said, “Scott, my name is Robert Luggi. Do you remember who I am?” I said, “Yes, sir. I remember meeting you.” He said, “Tomorrow morning, the attorney general wants to see you in her office at 8:00 AM. Be here for that meeting and don’t tell anybody you’re coming.” I said, “Okay,” and I hung up the phone. I remember thinking to myself, “Not even in my wildest dreams that I think you were going to name me chief.”
I thought you were going to ask my opinion of operations and direction. To be quite frank, I just thought you were going to grab another trooper and put them over top of the organization. That was something that just seemed to be the pattern at the time. So I was getting myself ready for that. I went up the next morning. I remember being brought in, taken up a back elevator, sitting in a room for several minutes by myself, waiting. Then the door opened and I think it was Robert or somebody, and they say, “Come on,” and they walked me through the corridors. I walked into your big corner office that overlooks the Delaware River with the rolling rapids in the background. I remember taking … That was the first time I was ever in that office, and I was like … everything, it was sensory overload. I sat down and you walked in, and you came in from a side door and you walked in, you looked at me, you said, “Hi.”
As you were walking and sitting down and it was all in one motion, you said to me, “Tomorrow, I name you police chief. I don’t care what you have to do the body bags to stop piling up.” I said, “Oh, okay.” Then you said, “What are you going to do?” I was like, “Well,” and I’m trying to think. I’m caught completely flatfooted on at that moment time. Then we started conversating. I remember you also asked me, you said, “Well, what is your weakness?” I didn’t fully understand what you meant, and I said, “Well, what do you mean?” You said, “Everybody’s got strengths and weaknesses. What’s your weakness?” I said, “Well, I guess from a command perspective, I have no experience in administration or budgets or anything like that, procurement.”
You said, “Okay, well, we’re going to get you the help you need, but we’re going to change things down there.” I said, “Okay.” I remember walking out of that office, I had a kind of an eruption of emotions. I had a lot of fear, I had a lot of anxiety. I wasn’t certain even if I was ready, right? I mean, I’m thinking to myself, “Wow, this has all happened so fast. What happens next?” People fear the unknown and what laid in front of me was a complete unknown. But yeah, that’s my recollection of our meeting that day.
Anne Milgram: Yeah. Yeah. No, mine too. I should say that you quickly dismantled the traffic unit, which I’m still very, very grateful for. Then look, that year, I’ll never forget that year, 2008 to 2009, the murders went down. Crime went down significantly, and in that year there were 34 murders in 2009. Still way too many, but down from 54 the year before, down 40%, and just … I remember, and I don’t know what you’re thinking on this, but I just remembered that there was this huge invigoration in the community of this idea of the city was going back to being safe and would be safe for the people, and that there was a huge amount of work to be done, but that I just remember that to me always felt like this great moment of understanding what an important role the police department makes in the safety of the city.
Just you being able to show that with all the work that we did in that one year, it really stands out in my mind as just that to me was one of the watershed moments of all the people we were fighting. There’s a lot of conversations we can have about how we changed the HIDTA, the High Impact Drug Trafficking Agency, about how we went to battle with the FBI who only gave the City of Camden, the most dangerous city in America, two and a half violent crime agents. There are countless ways I think in which we pulled in a lot of other federal agencies, DEA and ATF to help us. We moved out the state troopers who were policing the city instead of the uniform patrols. I mean, there were so many changes that were made, but to me one of the biggest things was just that message that the city could be dramatically different in that very short amount of time.
Scott Thomson: You know what? I think it’s also important to mention here to encapsulate the time. I went from a lieutenant to being in the police chief position over an 18 month period. Now, when I was a lieutenant in the narcotic unit that we talked about, we did a high level investigation into what is arguably … at the time, it was one of the most violent streets in North America, and we had a pole cam put up, and it was a secret pole cam. Nobody knew, not even the Camden cops knew it was there. Myself and a few other agents and investigators knew about it. But I remember reviewing hours and hours and hours of tape of this criminal drug gang that operated there, and being embarrassed and amazed at the same time that the only time a Camden cop car drove down that street was when somebody got shot, and there was a lot of people getting shot. But absent somebody being shot, the police didn’t patrol it.
I remember that thought and how bothered me, and that was something that I knew we had to address at some point in time. I think that underscores and provides the example of one of the first dynamics that we changed when we did the immediate reorganization of the department and pushed everybody out on the street. It was to create a presence wherein there was none, and prior to that, the most violent people in the city would operate with an absolute sense of impunity on the public streets, which has caused the overwhelming majority of the population, which are good people, to abandon public space and never leave their homes. The disruption of shaking up the entire organization, pulling everybody out from behind the desk and putting them out on the street was in large part, even before we put systems of accountability in place, what gave us the ability to start to have reductions in violent crime immediately.
Anne Milgram: I think we should talk a little bit about accountability. I also just want to say we’ve all been talking a lot about the redeployment, reorganization of the police department in 2013, and just to give a tiny bit of background for folks who haven’t followed this lately, we left in 2010. Corzine lost the election to Chris Christie. We left early in 2010. You were the chief and the incoming governor had cut the state budget, not just Camden’s budget, but essentially the distressed city aid, which was a lot of money that went to Camden and Newark and other cities that didn’t have the ratables, the tax space in the city to support public safety. You ended up having to fire I think over 160 officers as a result of those budget cuts, crime went up to a high of 67 murders in 2012.
Then this incredible thing happened where the county created a police force, and that was really approved by everyone to be led by you and to really let you figure out who you needed on your team, how to hire, how to fire, how to essentially police. I think really a lot of the reforms that you and I are talking about from 2008 to 2010 when we left, we did an incredible amount. But one thing that was really difficult was to bulletproof it from future change. I don’t think any of us understood the extent to which that one slash of the budget would just send the city into a spiral, and really all these reforms that you were working at, they require officers on the street like you’re just talking about. If you have half the number of officers, there’s no way to put an officer on that dangerous street to just be part of the community.
You then come through this transformation, and we should talk a lot about 2013, but I’m so interested to hear some of what you and I have talked a lot about. I’ve heard you say before that it was simple but it’s really hard, and that accountability is one of the core pieces of it. I mean, Camden right now, it is the safest it’s been in over 50 years. I was there not long ago, as you know, to go to the aquarium. My five-year-old wanted to see the hippos and the penguins, and so we went there and it is just … I mean, I spent so much time on the ground in Camden. It is a different place than it was, and that really is due to your leadership. It’s hard, and I think one of the pieces of this is it was a rollercoaster that really continued into not long ago.
Scott Thomson: I describe it best as, when we described the concepts of what we did, they’re simple, it’s just not easy to do. It’s important to also know that the progress we were able to make over that two year period from 2008 to 2010, was challenged at every step in the way. My first six months as police chief, under your cover, of the attorney general’s cover, I had 100 grievances filed against me and I believe it was eight lawsuits. If not for the state oversight and your empowerment, I would not have lasted as the police chief there. First of all, I would have never been appointed into the position. I just wasn’t their person. They didn’t know me.
Anne Milgram: Even if they’d known you, don’t you think they wouldn’t have supported you?
Scott Thomson: Yeah. Oh, no, because everything … We were disrupting the status quo. I mean, look, everybody was up in arms over it. When you’re talking about Camden, it’s gift as it’s curse. It’s very incestuous. Everybody’s related to each other, everybody knows each other. When you’re starting to hold people accountable, that’s not welcomed with open arms. Not only did I have my own workforce that was upset about it, but I had virtually all of their relatives and friends who were in other departments throughout the city also not happy about it either. So it wasn’t like I was getting support from the infrastructure within city hall in and of itself to boot, right? It was being appointed by you and having that cover, because they couldn’t just … If they could have just, with one council meeting, got rid of me, they would have. There’s not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that would have occurred. But they couldn’t because the state, the governor was providing 85% of the budget and you were the attorney general and you had the say.
I remember, in the meeting in which they resolved me, at your direction, I was essentially threatened by council president. He said, “You’ve got the power of the attorney general behind you. If you don’t reduce crime in one year, I’m firing you. I’m going to call for your firing. Do you understand me?” I mean, it was overwhelming. But I think it’s important to know that because it was … Again, the progress that was made, and we made some really good progress, it was in spite of the institutions at the time. Really when 2013 occurred and the opportunity presented itself to build culture as opposed to change it, I literally could do in three days what would have taken me three years.
Anne Milgram: Was that because of the union contracts too?
Scott Thomson: It was, and it was also because you had new union leadership. Now, it wasn’t, a lot of people will call, the dissolution of the city police department as union busting. The county, within two or three months, had a union, had the same union. It was the fraternal order of police, but the leadership was different. The leadership was as interested in public safety as it was in the wellness and welfare of its own constituents, its members, the cops.
Anne Milgram: I think that’s such an important point.
Scott Thomson: It was a tremendous facilitator. I mean, even look at what we were able to do last year. I mean, I was able to write a use-of-force policy and have the ACLU, the community and my union all sitting at the same table working in accord.
Anne Milgram: It’s now a national model. I should say that people are looking at it and adopting it across the country. You talk a little bit about the three most important things were hiring guardians, not warriors, so just really changing the mentality of the officer. The second, community, becoming a part of the community, the officers on the street. You eliminated the patrol division to have everyone be a community officer, but really listening to and becoming a part of the community, and then third deescalation and really changing the way that the officer’s thought about things. So part of the shift, it feels to me like the shift to the county department put you in a very strong position to do all three of those things in a way that it might’ve been harder to do under the old model. I don’t know if you think that’s right.
Scott Thomson: No, that’s absolutely right. I think that it serves as a foundation for everything that we did, and truth be told it’s … I’m not saying that the Camden model is the silver bullet, but when we’re talking about changing policing nationally, if those three things lie at the foundation, I think we can start to have meaningful conversation with people. Rather than just circling the wagons and trying to defend the indefensible, we were able to make significant progress with legitimacy with the community when they would essentially let me know at very high levels of volume how displeased they were with the police, and rather than pushing back and arguing with them, I embraced it. I said, “You know what? I agree with you, and I need your help to fix this,” and made them part of that process.
Anne Milgram: I remember you gave your cell phone out at a community meeting, and then you started giving your cell phone out at a community meeting. That’s such a symbol of really changing the us versus them mentality, right? Of basically saying, “You have a problem, you don’t have to go through all this bureaucratic stuff to lodge a complaint that may never get acted upon.” They could come directly to you. You and I also talked about this a lot too, that there’s a difference between what’s actually unlawful or against policy and what’s right, and that there were times where people might be acting within the existing policies, but still doing something that was wrong. So your willingness to engage on that I think probably also sent a very important message to the community.
Scott Thomson: Yeah. It was putting systems in place that protect people from themselves. I remember the first time I gave my cell phone number out at a community meeting was back under when we were together, and it was in 2008. I went to a meeting and the people in the community did not like the way the cops were talking to them and treating them. Some of those cops were in the room, and I knew these folks because I’d came up through the organization with them. I also knew that our systems of accountability were ones where if there wasn’t a recording of it, it was the citizens word versus the cops word, and it was not sustained and there would never be any punishment or never held to account for it.
Regardless of how many complaints came in, everyone was looked as though there was a one off. “Well, we can’t prove this, so we just put it aside. We can’t prove this, we just marked it not sustained.” Never did even the organization look and say, “Well, how do 10 people that don’t know each other all say the same thing?” Right? Even if I can’t prove any one of them, the fact that there is 10 people that don’t know each other that are making the same allegation, I’m going to give credibility to it. That was something I never liked as a police officer when I was out on the street. I never thought there was a need to dehumanize people or treat people with disrespect. I didn’t like that, and so when I was in a community meeting and people were telling me how ignorant and rude the cops were, and a lot of those cops were in the room.
If you remember, again, back to our story, I was not exactly the most popular person because all these folks are now actually on the street working, I pulled out my cell phone and I held it up and I said my number. I said, “Call it, right now. Call the number I’m giving you, watch this thing ring. If any one of those cops that are standing against the wall, anybody that’s wearing this uniform treat you in a manner that’s disrespectful or discourteous, you call me directly. Don’t go to Internal Affairs. You call that cell phone number any hour of the day or night,” and that’s a really strong signal to the cops as well, right? That they were going to have to start to change the way they interacted with the people, the public, because they didn’t want me getting a phone call.
Anne Milgram: One of the things I think interesting is that I was reading your list of the three things, right? The guardians, basically switching the department to be guardians not warriors, this idea of community, community-driven, community-engaged, and deescalation. I was surprised you didn’t have accountability on there, and maybe it’s because you think of accountability is going through all of it. But to me, I would say community was just one of the most important things we did, but the other really important thing was this idea of, and I think you’ve done it extraordinarily in the past decade plus, just this idea of holding yourself accountable both internally and to the community and to the safety and fairness in the community. You dropped use of force complaints, you dropped crime rates. I mean, but all of it was by basically saying, “We owe this to ourselves and to the community to basically to be accountable.”
Scott Thomson: Well, it’s a thread that runs throughout, right? I mean, it is … We changed to have the guardian identity as opposed to the warrior. That requires the changing of the internal metric system for performance. We had to stop rewarding officers on outputs and more on outcomes, meaning we had to stop determining who are the good cops by who wrote the most tickets and who made the most arrests, right? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s what we had been doing for decades, and every year we got worse. Even if we were to statistically reduce crime, our relationship with the community was never getting any better. We were still viewed as illegitimate. Look, truth be told, a lot of the things that even I did very early on as chief, I learned through the process.
I made a lot of mistakes and I matured. I continued to try to be more informed by the people. I think it was maybe in 2012 or 2013, I can’t remember, but you had introduced me to Barry Friedman at the [inaudible] policing project. Barry was very instrumental in helping us with our use-of-force policy and doing community engagement and the like. It was really the conversations with him. He’s one of the nation’s leading experts in constitutional law. He was talking to me about the consent of the people, and he educated me on that. Then it just shaped the way I looked at things differently. When I could start to be better informed of these processes, I think that it really gave us the ability to capture even more momentum. But so accountability is absolutely key, I think, and it’s also part of our deescalation.
Our use-of-force policy is not … Deescalation isn’t a suggestion. It’s codified in our department’s policy, and every time we use force, it doesn’t matter whether the force is reasonable and lawful when we review the body-worn camera footage of the force that’s used, if the officer’s actions were not consistent with deescalation, or worse yet if their actions aggravated and escalated the situation, we would take action. A perfect example would be a cop uses force because somebody punches the cop. Well, if you just freeze it at that point in time and say, “Well, the person punched the cop, therefore the cops using a taser or striking the individual back is justified,” right? That may be so, if you freeze it right there, but we’re rewinding the tape and we’re going back and we’re seeing the actions of the officer, and was the actions of the officer, were they provoking the individual?
Were they the ones that closed the space? Was this a scenario that we call officer created jeopardy? Could it have been better handled if the officer’s actions were consistent with our policies and training? Would force [inaudible] even had to been used at all? That’s an educational process for the officers too, and when you put systems like that in place, you start to protect people from themselves and they become better trained, they become more thoughtful in what they do and how they do it because you’re not allowing them to exercise the excuses they would traditionally use.
Anne Milgram: I wonder, Scott, when you think about policing in America today and the need for reform and where we go from here, if you have any thoughts on that.
Scott Thomson: Well, I believe that much like we did in Camden and in our transformations, I believe the burden is on us as police. I mean, at the end of the day, we may not like what’s being said, we may not like the way we’re being framed or painted in the media or the public, we may feel as though we’re being vilified, but you know what? At the end of the day, we are still government, right? We’ve got to be thick-skinned about this, and I think it’s important for us to empathize with why people feel the way they do, and don’t be defensive and it’s not easy to do because still we’re talking about human beings, meaning on the police side. It’s not easy to sit in a room and be blamed or be yelled at or … Particularly if you feel as though you weren’t the one that individually did it.
I would tell my cops that when we would do the deescalation training and trying to really enrich them in emotional intelligence, to say, “This is what you need to understand. You’re 24 years old. There is no person in this room that was standing on the other side of the bridge in 1964 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. You may not be responsible to that, but the uniform you wear is responsible for that. So you got to understand that that is going to be an emotional, that is very real. It’s very visceral within people. So you can’t it personal when they say and feel a certain way.” So I do think that it’s important that police leaders and governmental leaders, that they don’t just circle the wagons and cross their arms. I think that there are a lot of people that have some legitimate reasons, many legitimate reasons to feel the way they feel right now.
I think it’s important to allow them to express it. I don’t think now is the time to try to offer explanations. I think that when you get through that process and it probably warrants some reconciliation, I have found that sometimes it’s important to say you’re sorry to people and be willing to show that you’re willing to change and offer them to be a part of the change. So we just can’t listen to them then tell them what we’re going to do differently. I don’t think the public is going to stand for that. Again, we’ve got to get back to we need the consent of the people, so long as they have inclusion and voice and what things are going to look like moving forward. I think that can be a very informative process. When we sat down with the ACLU and the community on use-of-force, the ACLU had some pretty strong opinions about force.
I think that when we could sit down and they could tell us the spirit of what it was that they were looking for, and we could explain our concerns and thoughts and experiences, we were able to find common ground that I don’t think either party walked away absolutely happy with, and it wasn’t a complete one on either side, but we’re coexisting together in the same space in a way that’s mutually acceptable.
Anne Milgram: I think about it a little bit as a … If you look nationally, I definitely feel like we see some of the us versus them mentality between the police department and the community. In Camden, I feel like you got to the point of it’s us and us, right? It’s just us, and you’ve erased that division. One of the things you’ve said, and you’ve said it a couple of times, and I would just put an exclamation on this point is how many enemies we had. I mean, it’s really hard for me to square where the world is today with where we were. When there was a senior political leader in South Jersey, I will never forget this, we were going to redeploy the force and so I called all the elected officials in Camden. Some wouldn’t take my call, some screamed at me during those calls.
There was a really senior person who basically said, “Look, I like you. You’re not going to be able to do this. Don’t use your political capital,” right? I mean, there were people who were just downright against us and then people who just thought it was foolish of us to be spending the time and energy we spent there. But I know for both of us, it was our priority to make the city safe and to change the way the police department worked. But we really had enemies, and I could not begin to convey to our listeners just how deep that went. I wanted to just contrast that with last year when you retired as the chief of police and there was a ceremony dedicating the police department building to you, right? In your name.
If you and I had talked in 2007, 2008, and someone had told either of us that there would be a building named after you in that city, I think we would have both … we would have fallen on the ground laughing because we would have thought it was so impossible that that would be the case. I can tell you there is not a single person I talked to in the State of New Jersey in law enforcement out in involved in community and activism who doesn’t really give you such deep credit for the work that you’ve done there. I personally am so indebted to you and I think your work has been nothing short of tremendous and it gives me nothing but joy to see Camden held out as a national model for what policing can be. I don’t know if there’s anything in your mind that stands out in your time as chief or the transformation of Camden, but I will share the mic and let you close us out with that.
Scott Thomson: All right. I appreciate you saying that. I do think it’s important to use the word progress and not success, because Canon still has tremendous challenges, but when you compare Camden against itself, it is remarkable the amount of progress that has been made. I think the thing that I’m most proud of that we were able to do in this entire process was that Camden has changed internally in large part because we empowered the resiliency of the people that live there. We did not formulate a strategy that militarized neighborhoods. In fact, it was the transition away from those types of tactics that really gave us the greatest amount of progress. I also think that if there’s a lesson for other cities in the country, it’s that in 2013, part of the reason why we were able to make so much progress in such a short period of time was because you had all the parties.
You had a bipartisanship between the State of New Jersey, which was Republican leadership, Democratic county and city governments that were all rowing in the same direction, which rarely happens. That created a current, a hell of a current for us. Also, I think it’s also very important to acknowledge that there were significant changes in the school system in Camden. I remember being asked one time when murders were high in ’08, ’09 back when we first started, and reporter asked me what was I going to do to reduce murders. That same day, the State of New Jersey published a report that shrank the 370 some odd high schools in the State of New Jersey and the bottom five were Camden schools. I looked at that report and I said to the reporter, “If you increase my graduation rate 10%, you’ll reduce the murders 20%.”
My point being in that was that a lot of the challenges for extremely destabilized communities are … crime is a symptom, and at some point you got to go up river and start to address the root cause issues in public safety. One of the things that President Obama held up when he came to Camden as an example of the community policing, was our use of ice cream trucks and our use of popup barbecues in neighborhoods. I think it’s important-
Barack Obama: The Police even bought two ice cream trucks with drug forfeiture money, and in the summer drove them into some neighborhoods where gangs had taken over, and drug dealers were peddling on the streets and otherwise the street was empty. They drove those ice cream trucks, planted them there and had police officers giving out free ice cream. Suddenly, the community started coming out and the drug dealers started fading away. All of a sudden, the street corners where criminals were dealing drugs had police officers dishing out free chocolate chip. But in all of these efforts, the goal was to get the community involved before a crime takes place, to build trust before a crisis erupts, and officers then feel more welcome to their communities, citizens are more likely to cooperate with the police, and that makes us all safe.
Scott Thomson: We discussed this when he visited in May of 2015, was that understanding my community and knowing that as challenged and as poor as my community is that it’s a food desert, and if the idea was to get people to populate the streets so that we could suppress the flavor and criminal activity, having a police officer be able to provide many people, arguably probably the only warm meal they’re going to have that day creates an entirely different dynamic in which they start to see each other and communicate with each other. Us giving out ice cream, us doing the popup barbecues, us doing a lot of our mentoring within the neighborhoods, they weren’t just for photo ops. It was very specifically tailored to address the deeply rooted issues that vex the city and many neighborhoods.
It’s that kind of thoughtfulness that really local leaders know better than anyone. Maybe it’s not an ice cream truck, maybe it’s something else. But I do think that that’s really important for people to understand and that we were just not trying to do feel good, let’s take a picture here so that … I mean, actually there was a rhyme and a reason for a lot of the things, for everything that we did. It may all begin with public safety and public safety may be one of the most important variables in the entire equation, but it still is just one variable and other aspects need to be addressed as well.
Anne Milgram: It feels to me like that’s some of the most important conversations that you and I have been having for a long time, but we’re only now starting to have it nationally in the way that I think is important. Also, I know you said this, this idea of what should the police be out there doing, and you talk about you’d be willing to give up 10 officers for more boys and girls clubs, right? Just this idea of how do you work as a community for safety, and it’s not just the police? I think this is a really important conversation about reform now that, in my view, we’ve never had before. Scott, you’re amazing. I’m lucky to call you a friend and a colleague.
Scott Thomson: Thank you, general.
Anne Milgram: Thank you, chief. To gain access to the exclusive weekly CAFE Insider podcast, which I cohost with Preet, head to cafe.com/insider. Right now you can try a CAFE Insider membership free for two weeks at cafe.com/insider.
Preet Bharara: Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics and justice. Tweet them to me, @PreetBharara with a hashtag #AskPreet, or you can call and leave me a message at (669) 247-7338. That’s (669) 24PREET, or you can send an email to email@example.com. Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior audio producer is David Tatasciore. And the CAFE team is Matthew Billy, David Kurlander, Sam Ozer-Staton, Calvin Lord, Noah Azulai, and Geoff Isenman. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara. Stay tuned.