CAMDEN, NJ   – A woman saddened by news about a relationship wielded a pair of scissors in a nondescript office. There to defuse the situation was not a Camden Police Officer. It was Adam T. Parker – a reverend who grew up in Camden. 

Parker helped calm the woman down by relating to her dilemma and slowly de-escalating the situation. After safely securing the weapon from her, Parker exited the Virtra-300 virtual reality training machine at Camden Police Administration Building.

He was one of the community members invited to experience the new machine. “I thought it was very comprehensive and an excellent tool for the police,” Parker told TAPinto Camden during the exercise on Tuesday.

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Following the announcement in August of a new use of force policy, which the department created with the Policing Project out of the NYU Law School, Camden authorities invited civic leaders and clergy to better understand how officers deal in particular life-threatening situations. 

The training felt all the more apropos, as it was being held as a shooting rampage unfolded in another part of the state. 

A NEW WAY TO TRAIN

The VR experience did not include goggles, commonly associated with virtual reality technology, that immerse the user. Instead, Camden’s VR machine comprises multiple floor-to-ceiling screens that surround the trainee. Camden County’s Director of Communication Dan Keashen said the department is leasing the technology for at least a year for about $45,000. 

Sgt. Raphael Thornton sat at the controls atop a stand overlooking the officer – able to manipulate the simulator in various ways. He explained the situation the officer is handling changes based on the steps they take - with possible deadly results if improper steps are taken.

“The culture of our police department is very different from any other. The norm for us is de-escalation and we’re founded on the principle that the sanctity of life is important,” said Thornton, who plays a large role in the training along with Deputy Director of the Camden Academy, Cpt. Kevin Lutz. 

Thornton said the training itself has been taking place since 2014 - with hopes the new technology will only push it further.

In all, there are 231 scenarios that include various life-threatening situations officers are expected to know how to respond to on a daily basis. In a week or so, the machine will even be able to swap the ambiguous scenes the scenarios take place in with actual Camden neighborhoods – providing a more intimate feel.

“Put the gun away, stay back! I got this,” Officer Vidal Rivera shouted in another virtual scenario as four residents sat and observed. This time, a man threatened to harm an infant and another police officer rushed onto the scene gun-at-the-ready. 

Rivera worked through a five-step Critical Decision-Making Model that is the basis for the department’s approach: 1) collect information 2) assess the situation, threats and risks 3) consider police powers and agency policy 4) identify options and determine best course of action 5) act, review, re-asses. 

“Iron sharpens iron, that’s how I see this,” said Rivera, who works to recruit new officers at schools throughout the city. “I think the training helps to reinforce what we do and has a great impact across the board.”

More than 400 officers that make up the force – which include the 50 or so that will graduate this month from the academy – are subject to receive the training. 

COMMUNITY LEADERS WEIGH IN

“They want to explain to stakeholders what the police is doing in our communities, and I appreciate that,” said Sheilah Greene, a local advocate with Parkside Business and Community in Partnership. “This really should be given to everyone.”

In addition to the demonstration, Camden Police Chief Joe Wysocki and other officers were on hand to answer questions after a presentation of the new policy.

 “Who police’s the police?” said longtime Camden resident Zawdie Abdul-Malik during the questions portion. “Do we have any civilian boards that look into some of the infractions of the law?”

Wysocki said that when the Camden Police Department has an excessive force complaint it reports it to the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office. If criminality is found it is then reported to the Attorney General. If no criminality is found, the police department's internal affairs division handles the investigation. 

“We’re not permitted to be involved with the investigation in those instances,” added Wysocki. 

Another resident, Rev. Levi Combs, asked what the department does about the “blue code of silence” – known as unspoken rules among police officers not to report on a colleague’s errors in the field.

Combs said he would understand how officers “may feel intimated or uncomfortable reporting a fellow officer.”

Lutz responded that in addition to the culture established within the Camden Police Department never to allow for such intimidation, officers are mandated to turn on body cameras when they approach a scene. Any wrongdoing, either glaring or in question, is immediately put through the purview and proper steps are taken if need be. 

Former Camden school board member and active parent, Sean Brown, questioned the extent of the department’s reporting wondering whether too many man-hours – that would otherwise allow officers to walk the beat – are devoted to filling out reports. 

Wysocki said reports are necessary for behaviors in officers to be reinstated. 

Moreover, he said technology is making the process easier.

“In June, we had 30 different police departments come see how we use the technology and it really is for us to work smarter and more efficient,” said Wysocki. “I think it’s an exaggeration to say it takes many hours.”

DISCUSSING THE POLICY

In Camden, there have been 25 homicides so far in 2019, however no active shootings, according to the chief. 

The police department said it is proud to have been lauded by Sen. Kamala Harris’ plan to reform the criminal justice system. 

“The Camden Police Department led by Chief Scott Thomson has instituted one of the most progressive use of force policies that might serve as a model. It incorporated stakeholder feedback from various stakeholders, including the New Jersey ACLU and the Fraternal Order of Police,” Harris, who was a presidential candidate at the time, said in the plan released this past September.

The principles, available online, were rolled out with Thomson at the helm and took about a year-and-a-half to develop with the help of NYU Policing Project Fellow Julian Clark.

“Really the whole idea of what we do is to inject transparency, equity and democratic engagement into policing,” said Clark during a presentation of the policy. “We just want to… increase collaboration between the community and the police.”

During a presentation, Clark compared Camden’s policy to the 25 largest departments in the country – across eight categories such as that a policy restricts shooting at a motor vehicle to avoid stray casualties or requires comprehensive reporting.  

“For instance, the policy strongly encourages that you should not be using chokeholds and strangleholds,” Clark explained. 

He held up Camden among the best, with only Tuscon, Arizona and San Francisco going to as much length to hold officers accountable. 

Clark said the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), as well as Camden’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), were instrumental in developing the policy. 

“The way we’re holding our officers accountable is different from everybody else,” said Wysocki.