Late October 2013. It's nearly three years after the layoffs. A trio of squad cars flies through North Camden. Over the police radio, a voice chimes in from the RTOIC, or Real-Time Tactical Operational Intelligence Center, a super-high-tech, Star Trek-ish bridge of giant screen displays back at the metaphorical Green Zone that is police headquarters. There, a team of police analysts monitors the city using six different advanced technologies, watching those 121 camera feeds via 10 42-inch monitors and six different listening stations tracking cruisers by GPS. Somebody back there apparently spotted a drug deal through a camera near where this police convoy is cruising.
"Black male, white shirt, bald head," the radio crackles. "White shirt, bald head."
The cars take off like rockets and screech to a halt at exactly that same spot where John Martinez once almost punched his ticket, the 400 block of Grant Street. We're right in front of that same house. The wooden railing through which Martinez crashed backward two years ago has been replaced by an iron one, and leaning against it is a similar crowd of angry onlookers, glaring at the cops. Around the corner, near the house with the new porch railing, a young black dude in a white shirt stands surrounded by police, trying not to make sudden moves.
About 10 yards off from the "suspect," barking loudly and standing next to his handler-partner, Sgt. Zack James, is Zero, a black Czech shepherd police dog. Everything connected with crime in Camden breaks some kind of record, and Zero is no exception – he's dragged down 65 suspects in foot chases, something only one other canine in state-police history has done. Zero is friendly enough in nonworking situations (he even drops to his back and sticks his tongue out to the command "Cute and cuddly!"), but the department's male cops still cover their balls reflexively, even from great distances, if they see him loose in the parking lot.
Sgt. James, a burly officer who lives and works with Zero full-time, seems like he's ready to do a Lambeau leap in celebration, if only someone would try to run on his dog and become number 66. But in this case, they've got the wrong guy. There's a brief interrogation, the guy walks away slowly, and dog and humans pile back into their respective cars and screech out at high speeds, disappearing as quickly as they came.
Any reporter who's been embedded in Iraq or Afghanistan will find these scenes extremely familiar – high-speed engagements backed by top-end surveillance technology, watched by crowds whose reactions range from bemusement to rage to eye-rolling disappointment. In that latter category is Bryan Morton, a fortysomething community leader of sorts who still lives in the North Camden house where he was born. Morton went away in his youth for eight and a half years for armed robbery and drug dealing, got out, went straight, got his college degree, worked for years running local re-entry programs, founded a North Camden Little League, and had things looking up for himself, before he was laid off last May. Fortunately, he'd bought a food cart six years before that, which he left in his backyard as a backup plan; he now drives across town before dawn every day, setting up next to the McDonald's in Camden's pinhead-size "downtown."
Handsome, articulate, charming, Morton had just been robbed the day I met him. The guy he hired to fix up his cart bolted after the last payment, taking big chunks of his cart's sheet metal with him. There had also been another murder in North Camden the day before, a drug killing a few blocks up from Morton's house. Asked how bad things have been in North Camden since the 2011 layoffs, he laughs faintly. "Hell, the police gave up on this neighborhood long before that," he says, hoisting the cart onto his pickup truck's trailer hitch in the predawn light in front of his house. For years, he says, cops would drive through his block once every half-hour or so, pretending to police the place, but they wouldn't stop unless they had to.
"We know you're afraid to get out of the car," he says. "We know that."
North Camden is one of a few neighborhoods in the city that still feels less policed than occupied. There's even an infamous brick housing-project tower here called Northgate 1 where the middle floors carry the nickname "Little Iraq," for the residents' reputation for being not quite under government control. In fact, when the state raided the tower to serve warrants a few years back, they were so concerned with ground-level resistance that they invaded from the sky, like soldiers in Afghanistan, rappelling onto the roof by helicopter. The state police believed they'd sent a message, but there are locals who reacted to the Rambo-commando episode with the same you've-gotta-be-kidding-me incredulity you see on faces of kids surrounded by multiple squad cars and millions of dollars in technology, busted for loitering or a few lids of weed. "They pussies," is how one Camdenite put it.
Thomson, the city's energetic young police chief – he carries an uncanny resemblance to Homeland lead actor Damian Lewis – is trying to provide a counterargument to the alien-occupier vibe. His plan is to stabilize the city with foot patrols one neighborhood at a time. On an October afternoon he drives me through Fairview, that once-dazzling planned city full of brick homes built for New York Shipbuilding workers nearly a century ago.
A little overgrown still, the place now looks, well, nice, with few of the rat-infested vacant homes and factories that dominate much of the rest of the city. Conspicuously, there's no obvious drug traffic here. "A year ago, this space was controlled by gangsters," Thomson says proudly. "Now you have kids playing there."
He nods in the direction of a street corner, where a policeman in a paramilitary-style uniform, all steel-blue with a baseball-style cap, stands on guard. There's one of these sentries every few hundred feet, each seemingly within eyesight of the other, each standing bolt upright and saluting military-style when the chief drives by. We watch as a few elderly black pedestrians amble by, and if you listen carefully you can catch the street patrolmen diligently offering RoboCop-ian greetings to each one as they pass.
The plan is to deploy more and more of these getting-to-know-you details, moving neighborhood by neighborhood, working their way up to places like North Camden, where the police will eventually answer once and for all the question of whether they will lay it all on the line for America's most unsafe neighborhood.
Thomson is engaging and smart, and has the infectious enthusiasm of a politician, except that he seems sincere. Driving through Camden, watching these grim scenes of pseudo-occupation that in this part of the world count as progress, my overwhelming feeling was a weird kind of sympathy: None of this shit is on him. In another life, actually, he and someone like Bryan Morton might have been co-workers, or political running mates, since both men – the chief with his foot patrols, Morton with his pan-Camden Little League – say they're working toward the same thing: trying to create safe places for people to go in a city that historically isn't terribly safe even across the street from police headquarters.
But Thomson's optimism is based, again, upon the assumption that if you create enough safe streets and parks in a place like Camden, jobs will return, and things will somehow go back to normal. But what if the jobs stay in China, Mexico, Indonesia? Then the high-tech security efforts in cities like this start to feel like something other than securing a few streets for future employers. Then it's the best security money can buy, but just for security's sake, turning a scene like Camden into a very expensive, very dark nihilistic comedy: a perpetual self-occupation. Thomson clearly doesn't believe this. He has hope – he's as intensely focused on development gains like the opening of a new $62 million Rutgers-Camden nursing building as he is about locking people up – but even he at times can't help but sound like a military commander charged with recapturing alien territory.
"What you lose in one month, it takes five or six months to get back," he says, referring to the footing the police lost after the layoffs. "After what we went through, that's five to seven years we don't have."
Early afternoon, I'm parked near a little stretch of grass and chain-link in the shadow of the "Little Iraq" Northgate 1 tower. I'm riding with Kevin Lutz, a one-time homicide detective from the old municipal police days who's just become a sergeant in the new force. Lutz doesn't have any issues with getting out of any cars. In fact, he seems to get along with most everyone, even the local crew chiefs. We passed one earlier, a ripped character with a shaved head and a bushy Sunni beard who, word is, someone from another block had incompetently tried to assassinate the day before.
"Hey, what's up?" Lutz asks him. "How's your health?"
"I'm all right, man, I'm all right," the guy says, waving.
Lutz smiles and drives on. "He took one right in the chest yesterday, center mass," he says. "It was just buckshot, though. But check him out, walking around the next day, like it's nothing."
Later, we're near the towers. Lutz spots a white girl sitting on a brick wall ringing the Northgate 1 parking lot, wobbling, then suddenly falling backward over onto her head. He drives over and the girl, obviously a junkie, gets up and is walking around, disoriented. She starts spinning an impossible-to-follow tale about her friend being attacked in adjacent Northgate Park, a story that within minutes changes to a new story about that same friend just heading toward Northgate Park to get some chicken. The constant in the story is that she needs to get to Northgate Park. There's nowhere to get chicken in Northgate Park, but you can get all the dope you want.
"Hey, go home," says Lutz. "OK? There's nothing good in that direction. We both know what's going on."
"But I've got to find my friend!" the girl screams.
"Go home," Lutz repeats, driving off.
She starts in the right direction, back toward Philly, but in the rearview mirror Lutz sees her doing a 180 and heading back to Northgate. He casually turns around. About 85 percent of the heroin customers in this city are like this: young, white and from the suburbs. At all hours of the day, you can see junkies plodding across the Ben Franklin Bridge, usually carrying a knapsack that contains a set of works and, very often, a "Homeless and Hungry" sign they've just used to panhandle in Philly. The ones who don't come on foot come by car, at all hours of the day, and they come in such huge numbers that police say they couldn't deal with them all if they had a force of 5,000.
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