Wide Awake: The Chief

About five years ago, I set out to write a story about the new police chief in Camden.  

I asked for a phone interview and was told to call the chief on his cell, that hed be walking his beat. Oh no, I said, Im looking for the chief.  Yeah, they knew that.  

Chief J. Scott Thomson had just been appointed to head the new county force. This was after the monumental move to layoff the current force and transition to a county-run department. It was a pretty big job to step into; dont know that anyone envied him. I expected he might be a little gruff, a little stressed and maybe not all that interested in talking to a member of the media, since all media – national and local – had been bashing the drastic change in law enforcement.  

But Chief Thomson was soft spoken and polite and kind. And most of all, he was committed. 

On that first call, I heard about the changes he would work toward. He was convinced that Camden would be different. I hoped he was right. I liked his passion and certainly admired his vision. But it was Camden, and the city was in bad shape. 

One of the first things he did was change the hours of the police. About 100 officers were working Mon. to Fri., 9 to 5, which he thought didnt make sense. He changed the hours to primarily nights and weekends, when most crimes occurred. He was criticized – and sued. 

A few years later, I invited Chief Thomson to our Mens Roundtable and heard him share stories and thoughts that no one else at the table could match. He talked about when a 4-year-old boy was caught in cross fire and killed.  

His name was Brandon Thomas,” he said. That was a line in the sand moment for me. My reply to the people who were pushing back was: I have to look a mother in the eye who just buried her child, and I have to answer the question of what am I going to do to prevent her from burying her next child. 

His words carried such weight, and everyone in the room felt his burden. It was clear that this man was carrying on his back all that was happening in Camden – and he was determined to ease that pain for the community. But the question still remained if the task was possible. Even if you had the right people, the right methods, can a city be too far gone to come back? 

In 2015, I covered Camden on our TV show This is South Jersey.” It was the only episode where I devoted the entire 30 minutes to one topic. I went to police headquarters and featured the investment city officials had made in technology.  

So years have passed, and while the story isnt finished yet, you can see where its headed. When you look at the statistics showing a drop in the citys crime, its easy to see that all those plans and visions and hopes are starting to be realized. 

A few months ago, I attended a closed recognition ceremony for the police department. Every quarter, Chief Thomson and Camden Mayor Frank Moran honor officers who have made a significant contribution in the previous months. Families of the officers attend. They have their photos taken, and everyone is happy and grateful.  

It isnt just a celebration though. Several times, both the Chief and Mayor Moran held back tears when they spoke, sometimes having to stop for a minute. It was a reminder that this is a serious effort with life-and-death consequences.  

To end the ceremony, Chief Thomson said to his officers, We have been given a gift to be able to make these changes. I applaud you. I commend you. 

It may be that the true gift is when a man comes through on his promises, even when they seem impossible. When that happens, the results can be amazing. In this case, lives can be saved. Families can flourish, and kids can feel safe. And hopefully, the man carrying the weight can feel it lessen a bit, knowing things are better. And knowing his work has been good.   

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