When J. Scott Thomson became the chief of the Camden County Police Department in New Jersey in 2008, the police force, and the city as a whole, was in crisis. Camden had a record-high murder rate, and the relationship between locals and law enforcement was frayed. Thomson knew he needed to institute a widespread cultural change within his department.
In 2013, following the most violent year in Camden’s history, he took a drastic step: Thomson oversaw the abolition of his own police force, laying off every employee, including himself. Working from the ground up, he built a radically new organization, which emphasized de-escalation and community engagement. His restructuring led to improvements in police and community relations, and brought crime rates in the city to a 50-year low.
Thomson, who retired from the force in 2019, discusses his background in law enforcement and why he thinks what happened in Camden can be replicated elsewhere.
What made you want to become a police officer?
Ironically, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a police officer. But I always detested bullies. I detested people who would take advantage of others. I grew up in Camden, and having seen a city that was being vexed with violent crime and drugs, I wanted to try to make that situation better. So for me, it was not just about becoming a police officer, it was about being able to help my community. If I wasn’t going to be a police officer in Camden, I wasn’t going to be a police officer anywhere. I probably would have done something else.
What was your experience like as a young officer? What was the culture of the Camden police department like?
When I came into the organization, like many, I didn’t have any frame of reference. I was indoctrinated into the organization and the way we did things. We believed that what we were doing was good and that we were trying to help people. It really wasn’t until I started to mature in my career and achieve a higher rank that I started to reflect upon some of the unintended consequences of what we did.
As an institution, we had apathy, lethargy and corruption issues. These problems led to our inability to be effective in fighting crime, because we always represented something negative to the community. The only time we ever interacted with them were in moments of enforcement or moments of crisis. This contributed to the negative lens through which the community viewed its police. And probably just as damaging, it was the lens through which the police viewed its community.
When did you first have the idea to overhaul the system?
Even as a young, new police chief in 2008, I was doing things that were disrupting the comfort levels and changing the culture within the organization—to massive resistance. Then, in 2011, the global economic downturn of 2008 hit home in Camden. We lost 46 percent of the organization in one day; virtually everybody had a cut in pay and a demotion.
When funding eventually started to become available, we had to decide, were we going to try to rebuild the organization or were we going to do something new? Having been its leader for the past five years, and seeing how fractured we were, and how bad our culture was, I didn’t believe it could be resuscitated. I felt there was a moral imperative to try something new.
What was the biggest change you wanted to see in the new police force?
The communities that disliked us the most, it wasn’t that they didn’t want us there, they needed us there—they just wanted us to behave differently. So we had to make meaningful shifts towards addressing problems in different ways. Once we started to behave differently, once we started to show the community that we could be trusted, we became more effective. We saw our solve rate in homicides go from 16 percent to 61 percent. And as we became more effective at solving crime, we became more effective at reducing crime. The reaction from the community that didn’t like us finally started to change.
What do you think it would take for other police departments and law enforcement bodies to find the same success that you have had?
What is absolutely replicable are the fundamentals of what we did in Camden: empowering the community by giving them a seat at the table and creating a culture of de-escalation among the force. The idea is to take these concepts and insert them into your organization—into any organization—in a way that’s tailored to that community.
Camden’s crime rate is at a 50-year low, we have a 70 percent reduction in murders and we went from having 175 open-air drug markets to less than 20. That was not because of a police officer with a helmet and a shotgun standing on a corner. It wasn’t because of a unilateral police strategy or tactic. It was because the police empowered the community to reclaim the neighborhood.