It is a challenging time to be a new police chief. Today and tomorrow we feature two newly appointed police chiefs, and hear about their approaches to community engagement, crime fighting, and culture change.  

For today’s report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler spoke with Gabe Rodriguez, who was sworn in Friday as chief of the Camden County, NJ Police Department (see photo). Chief Rodriguez sent a New Year’s Day video message to the Camden community, in which he outlines the key elements of  his approach to policing in Camden.

Chief Rodriguez first joined the Camden City Police Department in 2003. In 2013, he joined the Camden County Police Department, which was formed when the city police department was disbanded, as a sergeant.

The city of Camden, which is the Camden County Police Department’s primary area of responsibility, has a population of approximately 77,000, with a median household income of just over $27,000 and 36.4% of the population living in poverty. In 2019, the city had 25 murders and 1,159 violent crimes.

Tomorrow, PERF’s Daily Critical Issues Report will have an interview with Chris Hsiung, the new police chief in Mountain View, CA, a community that is similar in size to Camden, but otherwise very different.


Chuck Wexler: Tell me a bit about your background and why you became a police officer in Camden.

Chief Rodriguez: Camden is a small dot on the map in New Jersey, just across from Philadelphia. Both my parents migrated here from Puerto Rico back in the ‘60s, and I was born and raised here. I grew up in a neighborhood in East Camden. All my memories, good and bad, are here.

Camden is about 8 square miles, with a population of about 77,000. It’s a very diverse city. Currently we’re about 51% Hispanic, 48% African-American, and 1% other.

Over the years, we’ve held some very negative titles, such as “one of the most dangerous cities in the nation.” It was challenging growing up here, with a lot of violence and bad things happening that were really driven by drugs. Drug dealers kind of owned the streets, and many residents felt they were prisoners in their own homes. And the community only saw the police when something bad was happening.

Very early on, as a young kid, I knew I wanted to do something impactful in this city. I wanted to be part of the solution, and change the idea that many people either were stuck here or wanted to get out of here. I wanted to reverse that, and make people want to come back here and not want to leave. That’s part of what inspired me to join the police department.

I joined at a very young age. I was hired at 19, when I was a freshman in college. I finished the academy just after my 20th birthday, and I’ve been here ever since.

Wexler: What was it like growing up in Camden?

Chief Rodriguez: It was often about survival. Walking to elementary school, I had to tactically figure out which streets I would take to school, then use a different route coming back home, just to avoid being caught up in any of the negatives. At a very young age I witnessed shootings. Riding my bike, I’d find someone who had just overdosed on drugs. It was very challenging.

At the same time, I was very fortunate to have such a great mother. I was raised by a single mother in what we call the “projects” here in Camden.

So I definitely saw the ugly side of Camden, but it’s a city that, once upon a time, was thriving. It had companies like RCA and Campbell’s Soup. We have an amazing view of Philadelphia from our side of the river. So I knew that there were better days to come, and I wanted to be a part of that.

Wexler: Tell me about your education.

Chief Rodriguez: I had to drop out of school when I was hired here. It was either the police department or head out to the military, because I was working multiple jobs, going to school, and just trying to stay busy so I didn’t get caught up in anything. It was so easy to do the wrong thing here in Camden at the time I was growing up, so I always tried to keep myself busy. I couldn’t wish for things, I had to work hard for them. I wanted to create a better life for me and a better city for the folks here. That’s what motivated me to do better and not just become another statistic. Many of my childhood friends have died violent deaths. Many are incarcerated. And many are in the same apartment projects where I grew up, now raising their families. I had a mindset early on that I wanted to do more, and I wanted to be part of the solution to make things better.

So, as I joined the police department, I knew that education was something I still wanted to accomplish. And not only for myself, because I have some young daughters I wanted to set an example for as well.

I was fortunate enough to finish up my bachelor’s degree, and I’m currently working on my master’s. And I was fortunate enough to also attend SMIP, which was a life-changing experience. It helped me in my career, and I met some great folks and received some great instruction.

Wexler: What was the transition from the Camden City to Camden County Police Department like?

Chief Rodriguez: It was an honor being a Camden City police officer. There was a history with that agency. But, at the same time, there were so many things going wrong. There was no such thing as community policing. People would not come to work. I think only about 40% of the agency was showing up. I think every other officer was suing the administration for some reason or another. There was no relationship between the chief of police and any of the local politicians, so we really couldn’t get anything done. We’d really just wait for something bad to happen and then respond to it.

When I was a young officer, we thought that the way to clean up the city was to arrest as many people as we could. We focused on arrests, and measured our success on that.

In 2011, because of funding issues, the department laid off 168 officers. We weren’t even fully staffed at that time, so it left us with about 150 people policing a city that was experiencing some of the highest crime spikes in its history. I was one of those 168 officers laid off. I was laid off for approximately 10 months, and was fortunate enough to come back. I wanted to work here in Camden, not anywhere else, so I waited for that phone call to come back.

Less than a year later, I received notice that I would be laid off again, but this time there wouldn’t be a police department to return to. I had to fill out another application, take another psychological evaluation, and take another physical fitness test to be hired with the new agency being created, which was the Camden County Police Department.

Although there was a lot of uncertainty and fear, I knew that the new police department would be better, and was being led by a champion like Chief Scott Thomson. I wanted to be a part of that. I was fortunate to be one of the first officers hired to begin the transition. I joined the team early on as we started to lay the foundation of this new police department. The focus was on changing the culture to one of community policing.  That was a term I heard a lot in my Camden City days, but never really understood until we switched over. We were getting out of cars, eliminating barriers, knocking on doors, really getting to know the people before bad things happened, and working with them to make their neighborhoods better. That was a great experience.

Wexler: Before Scott Thomson became chief, the Camden City Police Department had gone through several chiefs in a row, many of whom came from outside the department. Scott came from inside the department and provided stability at the top of the agency. What leadership lessons did you learn from Chief Thomson and the series of chiefs who preceded him?

Chief Rodriguez: You have someone come from the outside, and they’re well-intentioned. They want to have very structured meetings, look at numbers, see Powerpoint presentations, and micromanage. But they haven’t experienced the perspective of the boots on the ground in Camden.  

Chief Thomson had been here for a long time, and had been a specialist in every area he worked. The men and women admired him. He brought in this concept of community policing, and really thought outside the box.

Wexler: How do you plan to build upon the accomplishments of your predecessors?

Chief Rodriguez: I have to think beyond today and tomorrow, like Chief Thomson did. I have to think about what I want to have built, or built upon, by the time I’m getting ready to retire.

Chief Thomson left a tremendous foundation. We’ve built de-escalation and the sanctity of life into our DNA. We’ve built phenomenal relationships with our community.

I want to add a little more to that. I want to add a culture of officer wellness. In 2020 we had an officer die by suicide. In 2019, before COVID, suicide was a hot topic, because we had many of our brother and sister officers across the country taking their own lives. I think we need to focus on officer wellness, including mental health, physical health, financial health, professional development, and training. I think we do a really good job here, but I think we can do better.

If 2020 has showed us anything, it’s that, no matter how well we think we’re doing things, we have to continue to evolve, get better, build stronger policies, implement better training, and really instill all this in our culture.

I think we need to not talk about “the police” and “the community,” but rather to talk about all of us as one community. Officers spend a lot of time here in the city, even those who don’t live here. I think we spend more time at work than we do at home, so we are part of the community, regardless of whether you live here, work here, or go to school here.

And it’s so important to tell the community about what we do and the reasons behind it. Sometimes you can see things on camera that look really bad, but community members need to understand why they see officers conducting a felony car stop. It may look terrible, but they need to understand the reasons behind it. We need to bring them into our training and have authentic, positive, impactful engagements.

The last piece is transparency. Here in New Jersey and across the nation, there have been many requests for civilian review boards and other similar things. Transparency is a huge part of what I’m trying to build here in our agency. I want to open our doors to our community so they can see everything we’re doing.

Wexler: Camden is a good example of an agency that has changed its culture. How do you change the culture of a police department?

Chief Rodriguez: You can provide great policy and training, but if you don’t instill this in the culture of your agency, you’re not going to see true change.

When I first became a police officer, I remember our academy instructors saying things like, “Better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6.” In roll calls you’d hear, “We come in together, and we have to make sure we all go home together.” But we want to make sure that we as a community, not just the officers, can all get home safely. We’re not warriors, we’re guardians. That’s something we tell our officers every day. When I first became a police officer, it was the opposite. We were warriors, and our job was to arrest as many people as we could, without identifying or addressing the true issues.

And trust is the biggest thing. This year, the murder of George Floyd really set us back. Regardless of how well we were doing here when it comes to trust, it made people take another look at policing, and how American policing overall has to evolve and change. Fortunately, because of the relationships we have built, there was no violence during the protests here in Camden. In fact, people invited us to be part of the protests. And that’s because of the relationships we’ve built, beginning on Day 1 of Chief Thomson’s administration.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.