In recent years, the city of Camden — which has long grappled with high poverty and crime rates — has become a model for law enforcement agencies nationwide. And while relations between Camden residents and police remain strained, advocates credit this change to a new police command and community policing model.
Camden’s weekly Open Gym program is one example of how police and residents in the city of 71,000 people are coming together to promote unity, safety, and local partnerships. Residents of Camden — a nine-square-mile city across the Delaware River from Philadelphia — have shown that some are willing to work with police to promote change.
Open Gym, also known as “HoopItUp”, is a Camden County Police Department initiative launched in June 2021 to provide a safe space for youth, with a number of activities and resources made available to them. The initiative is funded in part by the Camden County Youth Services committee.
“A lot of people wait until someone is killed or something bad happens to do something. But this is a preventative measure, and it is consistent,” said N’namdee Nelson, a lifelong resident and vice president of the Camden City School Advisory Board. Nelson also volunteers with the Village Initiative, a partnership between local leaders, community members, and the Camden County Metro Police Department that hosts the Open Gym activities.
Open Gym takes place on Fridays from 6:30-9:30 p.m. at different community centers throughout Camden including the Kroc Center, Heart of Camden gym, and the Boys and Girls Club in the city’s Parkside section. Parents and local volunteers carpool kids to these sites, knowing they can have fun, be safe, and have access to a hot meal.
Members of the Village Initiative play basketball games with the youth, distribute food, and help with post-event clean-up Free refreshments are served, and participants can get help with employment, education, mentoring, and other local resources. During the sultry summer months, the air-conditioned gym is just one appealing factor.
“We have board games, double dutch and hula hoop competitions, and even yoga,” said Nelson, one of the many community members who regularly volunteers at Open Gym.
And at a recent pot painting and plant decorating workshop, participants had the option to pot a succulent in their newly painted pots, and received fresh, stemmed basil as a parting gift.
Those in attendance are provided with many options to explore and have fun.
Volunteers say events serve 60 to upwards of 100 attendees, with a consistency that helps to meet community needs: “Since it’s started, Open Gym has only missed 2 nights,” said Nelson.
Sometimes the events are so popular that the numbers exceed expectations.
“We had kids pack out the gym during a snowstorm! We had to order more pizza, recalled volunteer Pamela Grayson-Baltimore, a social worker with more than three decades of experience. A lifelong Camden resident, Grayson-Baltimore is also the founder of IDare2Care – a non-profit organization that provides therapeutic services to women and girls.
Affectionately known as “Ms. Pam,” Grayson-Baltimore said the community has not always had positive interactions with law enforcement.
“But I believe a drastic change has taken place under this new leadership,” Grayson-Baltimore said. “I am hopeful that Open Gym is a catalyst for substantial change.
She said [she] feels more comfortable approaching officers and developing a connection.
Currently, the Police Department is headed by police chief East Camden native, Gabriel Rodriguez, who took up the post in December of 2020. The city’s current mayor, Victor G. Carstarphen, sworn into office this past January, lists “strengthening community practices” as well as neighborhood beautification and developing better infrastructure and housing options, among his top priorities.
Both leaders seek to further improve community-police relations and the city’s declining crime rate since Camden’s shift from a city-controlled to a county-controlled police department in 2013. That year about 5,294 crimes were reported in the city, but recent statistics show a 48% drop in Camden’s crime rate in 2021 by comparison.
“I bring my kids with me when I go,” said volunteer Rosa Arroyo. Arroyo is a Cherry Hill resident and the Youth Services Commission (YSC) Administrator for Camden County. She cited recent youth arrest and court filing statistics from YSC that show a nearly 40% drop in youth arrests since 2016 to 1,056 arrests in 2020.
County court filings for serious offenses among youth also fell from 544 to 352 in that same four-year period. Based on this shift, Arroyo has high hopes for Open Gym and local programs aimed at curbing youth detention and fostering connections between law enforcement and community volunteers.
This fledgling partnership arguably reflects the work of the police department to engage the community and regain public trust in recent years.
According to the nonprofit think tank Mapping Police Violence, while Black people represent just 13 percent of the US population, they accounted for 27 percent of those killed by police in 2021. This reality has resulted in a disconnect and suspicion of police that often impedes effective policing and crime solving in urban communities.
In June of 2020, during a time of national civil unrest, uniformed members of the Police Department marched alongside youth demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hand of police officers in Minneapolis, Minn. The gesture, perceived by some as a photo opp, and regarded by others as an attempt to make peace, is but one moment in a long history of police brutality and deep-seated mistrust of law enforcement, particularly in Black and brown communities.
Several months after the protest, police chief Gabriel Rodriguez announced The Village Initiative — a partnership between city residents and the police department committed to finding ways to build community engagement and safety. His plan for the initiative is to strengthen police and community relations through grassroots programs and local partnerships. Together, members of the Village Initiative worked, at first, to enforce the youth curfew, starting in March 2021.
The curfew was implemented on Friday and Saturday nights starting at 6:30 p.m. Youth caught breaking curfew were apprehended without the use of handcuffs. Instead, they were brought to local centers identified by community leaders and the police department as safe locations and greeted by volunteers and officers who would engage them in board games and group activities until their guardians had arrived. By June 2021, the curfew program had evolved into the Open Gym.
“I would recommend it for parents looking for something for their kids to do,” said Aaron Cooper, a community leader, and firefighter who has volunteered several times at Open Gym.
While he commended the program as a sign of progress in community-police relations, he added, “The police need more diverse interactions with the community.”
So far the Camden Police Department has built up its social media presence as part of its outreach. The department launched a TikTok in March of 2021 that has since accumulated tens of thousands of followers and over 4 million views. The page features light-hearted skits, friendly interactions between police and Camden residents, and the service dogs of their K-9 unit.
During Open Gym, outreach has also included police recruitment efforts. At these events, recruitment tables are topped with handouts like key chains or water bottles adorned with the police insignia and pamphlets on the duties and qualifications of being a police officer.
“Every interaction does not have to be negative. I’m hoping that this inspires them to grow up and to join law enforcement one day,” said Captain Vivian Coley, who oversees the Open Gym program. This vision reflects Coley’s own story as a child born and raised in Camden who began her career in law enforcement as a dispatcher over 25 years ago.
In the meantime, Captain Vivian Coley wants to expand this effort to reach and serve more young people. “I would like to have Open Gym to be 7 days a week. I want them to have positive things to draw on when thinking about the police,” said Coley.
Local groups and nonprofits have also come together to support the mission. Organizations like DaeLight Foundation which focuses on mental wellness and suicide prevention, as well as Rising Leaders LLC, which provides mentoring services, offer their resources and talents to maximize the reach and resources of the police department.
“The community volunteers and police department have gotten good at being a team,” said Miss Pam, whose IDare2Care organization has also partnered with the police.
Despite policing challenges in Camden, advocates say Open Gym is a step in the right direction. Powered by a collection of community leaders working in tandem with the local police department, Open Gym has become the blueprint for other urban cities looking to improve civilian-police relations. For example, Philadelphia and Paterson, NJ have recently announced similar programs.
“Through commitment and consistency, these officers have shown that they are invested in the community,” said Arroyo. “When a community and police department relies on trust and communication to steer their relationship they can accomplish great things.
This story was produced as part of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University’s South Jersey Information Equity Project fellowship and supported with funding from the Independence Public Media Foundation