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What can Minneapolis learn from Camden, N.J., about disbanding a police department?

Back in 2013, the city of Camden, New Jersey got rid of its existing police department and tried something completely new. Now Minneapolis grapples with its own law enforcement future.

Back in 2013, the city of Camden, New Jersey got rid of its existing police department and tried something completely new. Now Minneapolis grapples with its own law enforcement future. April Saul, Associated Press

Last week, after weeks of unrest and riots in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, the Minneapolis City Council started discussing a revolutionary idea: disbanding the city’s police department.

Nobody’s sure yet what that’s going to look like—not even them—or what would be implemented in its place. But dismantling a police force and starting fresh is not unprecedented. The example most people are turning to in this time of transition is Camden, New Jersey. 

Back in 2012, Camden (population 75,000) was experiencing a homicide spike—a rate of 87 murders per 100,000 residents, according to City Lab. The city wanted to hire more officers, but couldn’t afford it, so instead, the mayor and city council dissolved the local police department and signed up to share services with the county in 2013.

The new force, according to a recent profile in Bloomberg, is twice the size of the old one, and officers almost exclusively patrol the city. The department adopted a use-of-force policy a whopping 18 pages long in 2019, which emphasized de-escalation and outlined specific, last-resort scenarios in which “deadly force”—like firing a gun, or, say, using a chokehold—could be allowed.

If an officer sees her colleague violating these rules, she’s required to step in. Any officer found acting out of line can be fired. By the department’s own numbers, it was like a miracle had occurred. Since 2014, reports of excessive force complaints in the city have dropped 95 percent.

On May 30, after Floyd’s killing, Camden County officers showed up at a protest with ice cream and banners rather than tear gas and riot gear. The event proceeded peacefully even as other protests in the area devolved into violent standoffs.

Reports say this wasn’t exactly the magical transition those datapoints make it out to be. It was sloppier and much more gradual, and not all of those changes were favorable to the general population. For one thing, according to the local NAACP chapter, this new police force is much less representative of the area’s residents than it used to be.

“Ninety percent of Camden’s population is minority—we have a lot of young individuals who don’t look like us that are getting these jobs,” chapter president Kevin Barfield told Bloomberg.

That’s an important note for Minneapolis, where only 8 percent of its police force live within the city, a statistic that has drawn criticism even before Floyd’s killing.

And besides the demographic shift, residents didn’t feel super comfortable with the shift in numbers. All of a sudden, the local police presence was a lot more… present. A 2015 report from the American Civil Liberties Union “praised Camden for the reforms,” Bloomberg says, but noted a “significant increase in low-level arrests and summonses.”

Even the officers’ presence at the protest on May 30 felt off to some activists. They felt as though their movement had been co-opted by city and police officials. Now a few years into the reform era, they say relations could still be better.

The months ahead will make Minneapolis’s path forward clearer. Meanwhile, a nation is already watching with bated breath. Time will tell if Minneapolis becomes the next Camden, or something else entirely.