Police Chief on law enforcement as ministry


By Joanna Gardner

A police officer of 22 years, Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson. joined the Camden force in 1994. In August, 2008 he became chief of the Camden City Police Department and oversaw its transition to the Camden County Police Department beginning in August 2011 through May 2013.

In January, 2012, the city lost half of its police force to layoffs. Camden ended that year with a record number of 67 homicides earning a reputation as one of America’s most dangerous cities. In 2013, homicides fell to 57. So far this year, the number is 22.

The county office’s command center has an array of large-screen televisions tracking squad cars through GPS, the city’s 121 surveillance cameras, and microphones that record gunshots and pinpoint their location. A screen indicated that the current response time to a 9-1-1 call was 90 seconds, compared to an 11 minute national average. But Thomson maintains that it is not Camden’s cutting-edge technology, but a focus on community and human interaction by the police department that has made this city safer.

Thomson attended Sacred Heart School in Camden through the second grade, then St. Mary’s School in Gloucester. He went to Gloucester Catholic High School, attended Rutgers University to earn a degree in sociology, and holds a master’s degree in education from Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J. He and his family are members of Holy Family Parish in Washington Township.

Q: Camden is drawing national attention to your law enforcement philosophy. Can you talk more about community building in police work and why that’s important?

A: I’ll repeat some of what Sir Robert Peel [a 19th century British statesman known as the father of modern policing] said 180 years ago. The true effectiveness of police is not the measure of activity, it’s not output, it’s not the number of tickets you write, and it’s not the number of arrests you make. The true effectiveness of police is measured by the absence of crime.

To achieve that goal of preventing crime from occurring in the first place, it’s not a unilateral effort. It is not going to be achieved by police officers militarizing communities. Crime prevention is best obtained and then sustained when it’s done in conjunction with the community.

Before, we would have some neighborhoods where criminals were operating with absolute impunity. Three or four people could hold an entire neighborhood hostage in their own homes. People would be scared to come out of their houses and what ends up happening is the good people stay inside and they keep their doors locked and these criminals have free reign of the streets.

But when you can change that dynamic by making people feel safer, and when they come out of their homes, what you find is there are more good people than there are bad people. And if the good people come out of their homes it makes it very difficult for the bad people to continue with their flagrant criminal activity. That’s kind of our recipe, that’s the equation.

Our top priority is building community, not making arrests. When people start to trust you and respond by leaving their homes and interacting with each other, it creates a soil in which the crime plant has trouble growing.

Q: You’ve seen some of the worst times in Camden in your six years as chief. What kept you from giving up?

A: I couldn’t abandon my post; I couldn’t leave. Robert Frost wrote, “I’ve got miles to go and promises to keep.” That’s kind of the same mentality that I have.

It’s been a roller coaster ride as the chief. When I became chief in 2008 I was the sixth leader in five years. There was a lot of instability in the organization, there was no real direction. I had the challenge as a very young chief to try and change culture. Changing culture is one of the most difficult things you can try to do.

Q: Why did you first decide to become a cop?

A: I despise bullies; I loathe injustice; I have a disdain for predators, those who take advantage of people with vulnerabilities. I wanted to live a life that would work against that. I enjoy the humanistic side of policing more than the crime fighting side. I like connecting with people.

If I wasn’t the chief the assignment that I would want to have is walking a beat in a neighborhood. I love getting to know people, hearing their stories, and learning what matters most to them. How can I, as the cop that’s assigned there, make their lives better?

Q: How does your Catholic faith shed the work you’ve done in Camden in a different light?

A: A lot of it goes back to when I first became a police officer. To me this wasn’t a job, it wasn’t a profession. It was a vocation, it’s a ministry. You don’t go into police work to make a lot of money. You certainly are willing to take on the inherent risks that come with the job. But that’s mitigated by the good that comes of what you do.

When I was looking at becoming a police officer I wanted to be in a place where I felt I could make the most difference and with my history and roots coming from the city of Camden and with the challenges that the city of Camden has, I knew that this was the place for me, that this would be home to my ministry within the law enforcement field.

Q: How do you cope with the challenges of police work on a personal level?

A: Faith is very important. Particularly being a police officer, you’re the agency of first resort for everything that is bad and wrong. There’s a book called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” [Harold Kushner, 1978]. You see that a lot as a police officer and it’s far too easy to become cynical, it’s far too easy to lose faith; it’s far too easy, when you’re exposed to that time and time again, to lose perspective. I’ve seen it over my career, people who lose faith and trust in mankind.

That’s why it’s important to have a strong faith to serve as a center of gravity, something you can always pull back into. I’ve seen children murdered in ways that still keep me up at night with images in my head. I’ve seen very good people have inexplicable things happen to them. One of the things my spiritual director taught me is you can’t always find logic in these things. You try, upon reflection, to take something away from it. There may never be a formulaic equation that’s going to make sense, but that’s really where faith comes in; there’s something more to it.

I believe there’s a reason that’s much larger than me or anyone else in this organization to why we are doing what we’re doing. We’re all instruments in that, regardless of denomination.

Q: You’ve been in the national spotlight several times now, especially recently. How do you feel about that?

A: I think it’s good that Camden’s story is being told in a more positive manner now. Camden has extreme challenges and we have been defined negatively for decades.

When you look at the challenges that are within this city, in many regards it is the perfect storm of social inequities. In 2012 our city was the poorest in the nation, the most violent in the nation, had one of the highest drop-out rates in the nation, had the highest percentage of single-parent households, had the highest population of people under the age of 18 in the state and within urban centers.

This is the United States of America. Children should not have to play in their basements because they can’t even play on the first floor of their house for fear of a bullet coming through the window, let alone coming into the front yard or the backyard to play. People shouldn’t have to live that way.

There’s a lot that goes into that that’s more than just police. This is a watershed moment that this city is going through.

“Our top priority is building community, not making arrests,” says Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson. Photo by Joanna Gardner
“Our top priority is building community, not making arrests,” says Camden County Police Chief J. Scott Thomson.
Photo by Joanna Gardner