Racial Justice and Policing in Camden NJ: Lessons for Change Leaders

[Adapted from Russ’ new book, coming out in September 2021: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Changemore info]

In 2012, crime was spiraling out of control in Camden. The city had a murder rate 18 times the national average. Officers saw themselves as warriors trying to dominate criminals, not as professionals there to protect and serve the public. Relationships between the police and African Americans were extremely tense. At that time, most cities had experienced dramatic drops in violent crime, and Camden’s leaders had several models to consider, from tough-on-crime methods like stop and frisk, to community policing, where officers form relationships with the residents and business owners in their precinct.

Camden’s leaders ultimately opted for a version of the second approach, but first they did something radical: they disbanded the police department and gave the county control over policing in the city. Those who’d been laid off could apply to be re-hired. Several new people joined the force. The powerful police union was taken over by new leaders who were committed to change. Interestingly, the county didn’t immediately change its policies and practices (though some were changed in the coming years). Rather, city leaders first spent time meeting with residents to ensure they had a voice in how the new department would operate.

Those conversations proved important, so much so that the person who became police chief in 2015 made clear his top goal: build relationships with the community. Over the next several years the department trained officers in the art of de-escalation; preserving life was the goal, and use of force by cops was to be used only as a last resort. Complaints about police using excessive force fell. By 2020, murders had declined 63%, robberies were down 60%, and overall violent crime had fallen 42%.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the precise reasons for these improvements. But comments from community leaders reveal what changed their perceptions of the police. As one put it: “Before the change, the police department didn’t care about our safety. When they made the transition, they built partnerships with members of the community.” Those partnerships created trust. The residents then started sharing more information about law breakers, helping increase the number of murders solved from 16% to 61%. Significantly, this trend has continued since 2017, when many other have cities experienced big increases in violent crimes.

What can we learn from Camden?

While there are several lessons, I think two are critical to all leaders. First, consider the wise advice from leadership expert Jim Collins. When considering a change, first ask Who? and then What? Start by getting “the right people on the bus, in the right seats,” as Collins puts it. In general, the “right people” are those with character, who play well with others, who are open to change, who have a strong work ethic. That’s what Camden’s leaders did. Rather than institute a host of new policies and procedures (the What), they started by focusing on the Who. As they got those people on the bus, they worked together to plan and implement the What – the strategies, practices, and procedures to implement.

And second, Camden’s leaders understood the power of relationships. Most of Camden’s residents, especially African Americans, didn’t trust the police prior in 2012. They saw the police as an enemy, which only heightened tensions. So, the new Camden police chief emphasized relationship building, and it began making a difference. Most residents were willing to give the new police department a chance when its officers showed a genuine interest in getting to know them and learn about their concerns.

Two key lessons for leading change, from the Camden story:
1. First “who,” then “what” – get the right people on the bus, in the right seats
2. Build relationships with key constituents before initiating the change

I’d argue that these two lessons are ageless. Indeed, they’re present in the Hebrew Bible. God’s decisions to select Abraham and Moses – the Who – for key leadership roles were essential to living out the covenant God wanted with the Israelites. And the trusting relationships God formed with Abraham and Moses were equally critical. Abraham and Moses were able to tell God to cool it when God was ready to unleash massive punishments. God, like all leaders, needed to have a few people who would speak truth to power.

What about you? Do you have the “right people on the bus, in the right seats,” for what you’re trying to accomplish? What’s the level of trust among those people, and with your key constituents?

One comment on “Racial Justice and Policing in Camden NJ: Lessons for Change Leaders

  1. Another clear and powerful post. The two lessons are to the point and beautifully illustrated. This reminds me of a recent point I came across from another leadership book: too often leaders facing an issue ask, as the very first question: what do we do? They skip over: what’s really the problem? As those in Camden clearly discovered, and as you point out so well, the problems were lack of trust, not having the right people on the bus, and using the wrong method of policing.

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