From Camden, New Jersey (which is in the foreground) you can see the skyline of Philadelphia (in the distance).
From Camden, New Jersey (which is in the foreground) you can see the skyline of Philadelphia (in the distance). Allard1/Getty Images

What would Seattle look like if we disbanded the police? Maybe something like Camden, New Jersey, which got rid of their cops, created a new community-focused security force, and saw their murder rate drop from one of the highest in the country to its lowest point in decades.

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Obviously, Seattle isn’t Camden; we can’t see the future (nor can we see Philadelphia); and nobody really knows what would happen here if we abolished the police. But that’s not a reason not to give it a shot.

Camden is instructive both because of what they did and what they didn’t do: They disbanded the police, sure, but they also replaced them with… different police.

At the time, Camden was one of the most dangerous cities in the country, and it was clear that whatever the police were doing wasn’t working. So in 2013, the entire local force was laid off and replaced with a county-wide force. That came with a slew of policy changes that re-focused the new officers on serving the public, rather than treating everyone as a potential threat. And so far, the results have been pretty okay.

For example, Camden County police are no longer expected to meet a traffic-ticket quota — now the preferred response is to warn and educate drivers. Police walk through neighborhoods instead of cruising through them in cars. The use of force is now a last resort.

You can see this more careful approach to policing play out in a video of a confrontation with a disturbed person wielding a knife in 2015. Rather than escalate the situation, police simply form a perimeter around him, walking with him for a few blocks until he drops it.

Results from Camden have been encouraging — complaints about use of force have dropped significantly, crime is at its lowest point in 50 years, and homicide is way down. Okay, so far so good. But could we do even better?

Proponents of abolition say yes, of course. De-escalating incidents when they happen is great, but maybe we can prevent more incidents from even occurring if we fund social services instead of funding a quasi-military force. In our current arrangement, cops have to deal with a ridiculous array of problems, including a bunch that nobody actually needs a cop to resolve.

Why do we need heavily-armed agents to respond to every cat in a tree, broken tail-light, and encampment under a bridge?

If we scale back our expectations for police, and spend that money on other professionals who are better-equipped for cats in trees, broken tail lights, and people experiencing homelessness, we might discover that we never actually needed cops as much as we thought.

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Sure, there will still be violent crimes to address. But how much? If Seattle invested in job programs, education, health care, and so on — rather than in rifles and riot shields — how much less crime would we have to deal with?

Camden figured out that their police could be something less … policey. That’s a good start.

Now maybe we’ll find out what happens if we go even further.

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