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Q&A: Camden’s Police Chief Gabriel Rodriguez
Gabriel Rodriguez has big plans for policing in Camden
By Kate Morgan

When Gabriel Rodriguez calls Camden his city, and its people his people, he isn’t speaking metaphorically. In the last weeks of 2020, after nearly 2 decades as an officer and detective, Rodriguez was sworn in as chief of the Camden County Police Department Metro Division. But long before that, he was a kid in the city’s projects.

Rodriguez, raised in Camden by a single mother, has a deep understanding of the city’s challenges and its promise. The 38-year-old is poised to lead the department for decades, and he plans to spend that time building Camden – and its police force – into something better and brighter.

Q: You were raised in Camden – first in the McGuire Gardens Apartments, and later in Cramer Hill. Can you describe your childhood in the city?

It was a single parent household, with my mother raising 4 kids on welfare. There was a lot of drug dealing and violence in the neighborhood. Walking to school was hard, trying to avoid it. You had to find a safe way to get to school, and most days a different way to get back.

We were always on heightened alert. You know how you have fire drills in school? At home we were taught shooting drills: how to get down on the ground and get away from doors and windows. It was always uncomfortable to take a shower, because there was a window. It felt like being a prisoner in your own home, like we even got “yard time” and we were only able to go out and play at certain times during the day, when it was safe.

Q: What kept you from ending up on that path of drugs and violence

A lot of people I knew did. A lot of my friends are in jail or have been killed out in the streets. I learned from other people’s mistakes. My mom was really struggling financially, so my siblings and I never wanted to do anything to draw the attention of police to our home. We just avoided as much trouble as possible.

I learned not to wish for things, but to work hard for them. I started a little business taking people’s trash out when I was around 12. At 14, I started working at a sneaker store on Federal Street. At 16, I started working at Chuck E. Cheese, in the mouse suit and everything. I worked at the Cherry Hill Mall and in my aunt’s bakery in Camden. I was thinking about going into the military.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a cop?

At a young age I was always amazed at how things cleared up. There was a very bad drug set right by where I lived. It was called The Alleyway. It was a multi-million-dollar drug business half a block from where I was growing up. But one police car would drive through, and it was like turning on a light. All the bad people disappeared, and I’d just feel better inside. It was kind of intoxicating. I didn’t know I wanted to be a cop then, but I loved that feeling.

I remember on Sundays, walking to church with my mom, and walking back in the dark. We’d get to our steps and there’d be a bunch of drug dealers there. It’s hard when you’re living in a home without a male figure. It’s easy to be convinced that the boys out in the street doing the wrong thing are who you should follow. For me…I wanted to do something different, something positive. I wanted to be the one who turns that light on.

Q: How does your mom feel, seeing where you are now?

She cannot believe her son is the chief of police in Camden. It’s a dream come true for her. I always asked her, like, why’d you never leave the projects? She said she didn’t pray for a home, she prayed for her children to be successful.

Q: What’s been your best day on the job so far?

Yesterday? Today? Every day brings different challenges and opportunities, but when I meet with the community, that really re-energizes me. I love this city and the people in it. I really enjoy connecting with the community, and talking to our stakeholders, and playing with the kids.

Q: How about your worst day?

I was a homicide detective, and on the SWAT team for 8 years. As a homicide detective I saw some really bad things and talked to some really bad people. You reach a point in your career where you say I’ve seen it all, I’ve experienced it all, and nothing can surprise me. In 2012, there was a call for a young child that was stabbed. A mother was high on PCP and she decapitated her 3-year-old son. She committed suicide shortly after. I was the first one in the door. There were 3 officers who didn’t come back to work after that night.

“I want to bring in our clergy, business owners, politicians, community leaders. I want to involve them in policing. I call it unity policing. I tell our stakeholders I’m the people’s chief. I say, ‘This is your office, I’m just occupying the space.’”

Q: Why did you come back?

Even after that, after encountering people trying to kill me, after other tough things – one of my first shooting calls as a new officer was one of my best friends, Marcus. It was in Parkside. He was shot twice in the head, and we found him with a gun in his hand. Even after that, my love for this city, and for what I do, compels me to continue to push hard.

Q: What’s been your biggest career challenge so far?

I was one of the officers laid off in the lay-offs in 2011. At the time I was on a task force dealing with shootings and homicides, and really experiencing burnout. The layoff was a sobering moment for me. It really humbled me and made me even more grateful. To be able to do something you love is rare. I came back re-energized, and less than a year later I was getting another pink slip when they dissolved the city department and started the county force. Without hesitation I applied, and I was fortunate to be one of the first 6 detectives hired to start building out the new police department.

Q: What kind of changes do you want to make in the department?

My goal was never to be chief of police. It was just to do whatever I could for my community. I’ve always given my all every day I’m here. Myself and the officers that work for me – we’re public servants. The people we’re serving happen to be my people. I’m working for the people I care about the most, and to keep them safe, we need to build a new culture.

You have to care about the people you’re serving. Especially in light of what we’re seeing across the country: you cannot protect the people you fear. That’s why you see officers shooting people, thinking they’re tasing them. That’s why George Floyd was still pinned down after he’d passed out. I am big on training and policy, but more importantly, culture. If you don’t fix the culture of the agency, nothing changes.

Q: What’s your major goal as chief?

In 2013, when we created this new department, the biggest thing was we are going to create something different, something better. Community policing was born in this city. I was out of my car, walking beats, engaging with people, just saying hi, not “give me your ID.”

I want to take that a step further. I want to bring in our clergy, business owners, politicians, community leaders. I want to involve them in policing. I call it unity policing. I tell our stakeholders I’m the people’s chief. I say, “This is your office, I’m just occupying the space.”

I want to see property values come up, see people move back home. I want to make Camden a safer place. I want to see growth in Camden, see people employed in the city they live in and companies coming back. I want to get to a better place when it comes to relations with the community, and build a lot of trust. I just want to do what’s right.

June 2021
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