Is Camden Destined to Hear the Same Ole Song?

Is Camden Destined to Hear the Same Ole Song?
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There is a lot of blame to go around with respect to the city of Camden, New Jersey releasing half of its police force. One could blame the mayor, Dana Redd, for painting a picture that shows the greed of police and fire unions rather than showing a picture of her efforts of exploring all possible options to save police jobs and reassure city residents. One could blame the police and fire unions for their reticence with respect to making concessions that could save some jobs. Some could blame the government and politicians for creating a climate in the city that is concerned more with political posturing rather than problem solving. Government officials could also be blamed for creating the conditions for a city's reliance on state funding rather than establishing the conditions for Camden to gradually reach a level of autonomy that does not leave a government without the ability to effectively govern. Some could blame the people of the city - specifically those underground elements - who have made poor choices in their lives that have led to their plight. As you can see, there is a lot of blame to go around.

But who or what is really to blame for not just the problem of police layoffs, but the conditions that have rendered Camden inept to fund its police force: a police force that is mandated to protect and serve residents within the second most dangerous city in America? While there is corruption, political posturing and mismanagement on the part of some political officials and some greed, stubbornness and selfishness on the part of some state workers, there is another culprit. The culprit is poor public policy. Poor public policy is not always at the hands of ill-intentioned individuals. Bad public policy can be introduced and influenced by well-intentioned folks who meant well, but had a bad plan to deal with the area(s) they sought to address. In my humble opinion, I believe that is what has helped to facilitate the situation that Camden currently faces. Camden is the victim of public policy gone "way bad."

Camden City was once a bustling industrial center - a welcomed alternative to Philadelphia. Camden was home to RCA, a bustling shipyard, and it is still home to Campbell Soup Company. The city is renowned for being the home the famous poet Walt Whitman and the beautifully constructed Ben Franklin Bridge, a wonder in its heyday. Like every major American city, Camden faced the departure of industry due to suburban sprawl and "white flight." Abandoned buildings, sorely neglected tenements and few job opportunities due to the departure of industry (in addition to racism found in institutions and society) led to the gradual concentration of poverty. With the lack of jobs, the underground economy, i.e. drug dealing, became a viable option for some residents, many of whom were young Black and Latino males. Public housing, designed and implemented with the intention to be a welcomed alternative for individuals who could not afford a house, only sped along the process of poverty, crime and violence. The lack of a sustainable tax base led to the poor administration of city functions and the deterioration of the city's infrastructure. Without money to support itself, city officials turned to fiscal opportunities presented by the state of New Jersey that other municipalities would have declined - embedding a cement and sewage plant that spews pollutants throughout several neighborhoods and building a state prison that did more to destroy the minds of those watching it from the outside than rehabilitating the minds of those on the inside.

Poverty, violence, political corruption and a wasted economic base was the reason for the State of New Jersey to step in and "take over" city operations. In 2003, under the leadership of then state senator Wayne Bryant and former Governor James McGreevey, the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act was drafted and passed. The bill sent $175 million dollars to the city of Camden. Such a high price tag didn't come without strings. Camden was under the fiscal oversight of the State of New Jersey - a state appointed chief operating officer was created to manage city affairs. According to the revitalization strategy, the ERA would seek to direct available resources to economic development activities that would create jobs for Camden residents; including residents either seeking better jobs to increase their incomes and residents seeking first time employment. The strategy also outlined support activities, designed to assist with the overall development of city residents. Those activities included job placement programs, GED programs, skills training, beautification projects, business loan programs and neighborhood commercial revitalization programs. In the end, the successful implementation of those activities was hit or miss in the eyes of critics of the bill and city residents. What the plan did do was provide money to the Adventure Aquarium for renovations, Rutgers University for the building of a new law school and Cooper Hospital for a new additions and renovation. It provided money to beautify the downtown district and fix the infrastructure with new traffic patterns, rehabilitated roads and a train that takes folks from Camden to Trenton. While this is all important, Camden's neighborhoods look relatively similar in 2011 to the way they did in 2003.

Yet the failure of the Economic Recovery Act was that while it may have been engineered with the best of intentions, it was nothing more than a step backwards for a city crippled by poverty, corruption, violence and poor politics. The ERA made Camden more dependent on the State of New Jersey for fiscal administration, funding and policing the lawlessness. State aid was continuously sent to Camden to fund the administration of city government; making up for any budget shortfalls. City streets were patrolled by both Camden police and New Jersey State Troopers, affectionately called the "State Boys" by city residents, and though for years Camden was one of the more dangerous cities in the nation, there was a police presence throughout the city. The ERA helped make it possible for the city to run while funneling money to certain institutions; translation, the State of New Jersey ran the city of Camden for a period of 7 years to fund special projects while hoping to lower the violence in the process. The election of Governor Chris Christie introduced the return to fiscal responsibility, aka the "we're broke" era in New Jersey government. With that, Governor Christie relinquished state control of Camden and it went back to the office of the Mayor. Along with administrative and fiscal powers came independence from state oversight and the funding that was attached. Amalgamate that with political posturing and a lack of compromise from all parties and you have an ugly situation.

Camden and the Economic Recovery Act is an example of how good intentions do not translate into effective public policy. Money and laws do not always fix problems, particularly systemic problems that are decades in the making. I am not sure of how to fix the problems that face Camden. I am unsure if anyone does. However, policymakers and stakeholders must follow the age old adage: those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Enough effort has been made previously for new strategists to learn from, in an effort to create new strategies that do more than drain from the state and leave the city powerless to stand on its own two feet. City residents are now left with the reality of fewer cops and fear for their safety and the safety of their families, and with good reason. Camden is primed to become America's most dangerous city once more. Many of my students feel abandoned; they feel that government doesn't care about their well-being. Many have asked me what the solution to this problem is. I've pondered the possible answer and honestly, a long-term solution for curbing crime and violence in Camden is providing educational and employment opportunities for residents. A short-term solution for the same problem: figuring out how to put those cops back on the streets. Regardless of who is at fault for the cop layoffs, a layoff of half of the police force in America's second most dangerous city is not a good look. Neither will be a policy solution that is, in the words of the Four Tops, the same ole song.

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