Camden, New Jersey has once again been declared the nation’s most dangerous city in 2014. The murder rate, mostly fueled by the city’s drug turf war, is about 12 times the national average. For decades, Camden has consistently had one of the highest violent crime rates in the country. For the most part, the city didn’t receive much attention from its overworked and underpaid city police.
But, that changed when current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie first took office and decided to capitalize on Camden’s crime plight. He pushed for the county to take over the city’s police force and, in 2011, installed a $4.5 million command center in the city to boost police presence. The state instituted a new policing strategy in Camden: total surveillance.
The county police nearly doubled its police force over the past three years. According to the county police chief, Camden currently has more officers actively patrolling the streets than at any point in history. Police are trained to use military-style foot patrolling techniques. The goal is to clear as many people off the streets as possible. Cops target highly populated areas and threaten to charge residents with loitering or solicitation. Their mentality is if you’re “standing around,” then you’re selling or looking to score drugs.
The Camden County Police have gotten the most attention for their unprecedented use of expensive surveillance technology. The state spent $1.8 million dollars for a network of 121 security cameras that feed into the Metro Division’s “eye in the sky” nerve center. These cameras can view nearly two-thirds of the entire city. To watch the other third, the county invested in a $135,000 30-foot mobile crane called “SkyPatrol”, which police can park in any neighborhood to view thermal images of any space within a 6-block radius, including back yards and open windows. 35 microphones have been planted around the city, and cruisers are tricked out with automatic license plate scanners.
Journalists and civil liberty activists, like the ACLU, quickly noticed these extreme measures and dubbed Camden the “Surveillance City.” The ACLU filed multiple FOIA requests to determine “the extent to which local police departments are using federally subsidized military technology and tactics that are traditionally used overseas.”
Despite the concerns raised over the city’s questionable interpretation of the fourth amendment, Christie plans to implement this policing model in other Jersey cities. He boasted that Camden’s crime rate is down 9% since the inception of the surveillance state. Don’t be fooled by unanchored statistics. After three years of these extreme practices, Camden still has the highest crime rate in the entire nation.
Even if the surveillance state were able to significantly decrease the crime rate, the effects would only be felt short-term. Camden’s street crime problem is just a symptom of a much larger problem, absolute poverty.
It’s unsurprising that Camden also ranks as one of the nation’s most decrepit and impoverished cities, where nearly 40% of residents live below the poverty line. Once a Mid-Atlantic industrial powerhouse, Camden’s economy collapsed after several large job-producing factories closed. One of the first victims of white flight, Camden’s population is almost exclusively made up of discriminated minorities. The only thriving economy in the city is the drug economy, which has created a substantial amount of the city’s violence.
It’s as absurd as it is depressing that nearly $10 million of new surveillance equipment was bought to monitor a city that has over 1,000 abandoned buildings and shares only one full-service supermarket between 77,000. The state’s priorities are either seriously skewed or the Christie administration’s doesn’t actually care about creating a more stable environment in Camden.
Proponents of the surveillance state would argue that “safer” streets would lead to more investments and outsider spending. In reality, Camden is a warzone: it has zero infrastructure and an overabundance of police. The surveillance state didn’t open the city up to outside spending, it isolated it even further.
Restoring the city of Camden is going to require an aggregate solution. But, it’s fair to say that throwing away millions of dollars for a citywide camera system isn’t going to help much.