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Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch From America's Most Desperate Town

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Energized county officials say they have a plan now for retaking Camden's streets one impenetrable neighborhood at a time, using old-school techniques like foot patrols and simple get-to-know-you community interactions (new officers stop and talk to residents as a matter of strategy and policy). But the plan also involves the use of space-age cameras and military-style surveillance, which ironically will turn this crumbling dead-poor dopescape of barred row homes and deserted factories into a high-end proving ground for futuristic crowd-control technology.

Beginning in 2011, when the city first installed a new $4.5 million command center – it has since been taken over by the county – police here have gained a series of what they call "force multipliers." One hundred and twenty-one cameras cover virtually every inch of sidewalk here, cameras that can spot a stash in a discarded pack of Newports from blocks away. Police have a giant 30-foot mobile crane called SkyPatrol they can park in a neighborhood and essentially throw a net over six square blocks; the ungainly Japanese-robot-style device can read the heat signature of a dealer with a gun sitting in total darkness. There are 35 microphones planted around the city that can instantly detect the exact location of a gunshot down to a few meters (and just as instantly train cameras on escape routes). Planted on the backs of a fleet of new cruisers are Minority Report-style scanners that read license plates and automatically generate warning letters to send to your mom in the suburbs if you've been spotted taking the Volvo registered in her name to score a bag of Black Magic on 7th and Vine.

The streets have noticed the new technology. Dealers and junkies alike have even begun to ascribe to the police powers they don't actually have. "They have facial-recognition on cars, man," says Townsend, the homeless ex-con with the murder sheet. "So that when you go by 'em, they see if you are wanted for anything."

For sure, there's bitterness on streets in Camden over the fact that the city was essentially abandoned three years ago. But misery loves company, and this is a place where even the police seem shellshocked. Some of them, you get the sense, feel abandoned too – cut off from the rest of America just like everyone else here. Very few of them have the pretend-macho air you get from hotshot cops in other tough cities. Camden police will come straight out and tell you stories about getting their faces kicked in and/or beaten half to death. And they all talk about this place with a kind of awe, often shaking their heads and whispering through the worst stories.

"The kid happened to be on a bike," begins a 20-year police vet named John Martinez, closing his eyes as he remembers a story from July 2011. He was riding with a rookie partner that day. The city at the time was still in near-total chaos, with drug dealing mostly going unchallenged by the police. But on that hot July afternoon, Martinez spotted a teenager doing a hand-to-hand on Grant Street, shrugged, and decided to pursue anyway.

"[The dealer] saw me walking up to him. I told the rookie to stay in the car, because 90 percent of the time, they run." The kid started pedaling away. The rookie gave chase in the car, then stopped, jumped out and went after him on foot. Martinez started to follow, but then looked back at the car and realized his newbie partner had left it running.

"I started to run with him," he said, "but I thought, 'Yeah, this'll be gone.'"

By this, Martinez meant the car. Last summer, in fact, a male-female pair of suburban junkies stole a squad car parked right in front of police headquarters, ran over the cop it belonged to (he survived, but his leg was shattered, his career over), tore across the bridge into Philly pursued by a phalanx of Camden cops ("You can imagine the public's bewilderment, seeing police cars chasing a police car," recalls Thomson), and crashed in Philly after a long chase – only to flee on foot, double back, and steal another car, this time a Philadelphia police cruiser.

"Junkie Bonnie and Clyde" were eventually caught, but the point is, you can't leave a car running in Camden, especially a police car. So on that July day, Martinez went back to his cruiser instead of helping out his partner. Eventually, another experienced officer showed up, also toting a rookie partner. The two rookies ended up catching the suspect on foot and were trying to get him cuffed when Martinez started to sense a problem. A crowd of about a hundred formed in the blink of an eye and started pelting the cops with bottles and rocks. Martinez ended up chasing onto a porch a teenager who'd thrown a bottle.

Next thing Martinez knew, he was jumped by "women, older women, men, kids. . . . As soon as I grabbed the kid, everybody started trying to forcibly take him from me. They're punching me in the back, on the side of the head. . . . "

In the struggle, Martinez and the kid ended up crashing backward through the porch railing and tumbling to the street, where Martinez suddenly found himself looking up at 100 furious people, with an angry teenager on top of him, reaching for the gun in Martinez's thigh holster. The three other cops rushed to his aid – the two rookies making another mistake in the process. They'd cuffed the original suspect and put him in the back of the car, but in the rush to save Martinez, they again left the cruiser unlocked. Backup arrived a few moments later, but when Martinez got back to his feet, he realized the crowd had left them all a big surprise.

"We go back to the original police car where that drug-dealing suspect was, and the back door is open and he's gone," Martinez recounts. The neighborhood had taken the suspect back, cuffs and all. "But I'll take that."

The moral of the story: Arrests in North Camden, the most stricken part of town, sometimes just don't take. Many cops here have stories about busts that either didn't happen or almost didn't happen when the streets made an opposite ruling. "Ninth and Cedar. I remember chasing a guy a block and a half – he had a Tec-9," says Joe Wysocki, a quiet, soft-spoken 20-year Camden vet. "Handcuffing him, I remember looking up and there were, like, 60 people around me. I threw the guy into the car, jumped in the back seat with him, and [my partner] took off."

"Telling the prisoner, 'Move over,'" joked another cop in the room.

"Yeah," says Wysocki. "Sometimes you just have to scoop and run."

Nobody in North Camden calls the police. When the county installed the new "ShotSpotter" technology that pinpoints the locations of gunshots, they discovered that 30 percent of all shootings in the city go unreported, many of them from North Camden. "North Camden would generally like to police itself," says Thomson. "Rather than getting a call of an adult who had assaulted a child, generally you'll get a call to send an ambulance and a police officer to the corner of 7th and York because there's a person laying there beaten nearly to death with chains."

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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