Camden County Joseph Wysocki announced his retirement yesterday, a little over one year after being sworn in as the second chief of the Camden County, NJ Police Department. He joined the City of Camden’s Police Department in 1991, served as internal affairs commander through the 2013 disbanding of the city Police Department and formation of the county Police Department, and served as Assistant Chief in Camden County from 2015-2019, working with Chief Scott Thomson to implement reforms. 

On Monday he spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about how policing in Camden has been transformed during his career, his approach to this summer’s demonstrations, and the importance of de-escalation training.

Chuck Wexler: How did it feel to announce your retirement?

Chief Wysocki: At noon I told the command staff that I’d be retiring on January 1st. I thanked them for their commitment. Captain Gabriel Rodriguez was announced by Freeholder Director Cappelli as the next chief. I told them that I’m not taking any time off over the next two months, and will be working day in and day out with Captain Rodriguez to show him everything we have in place.

When I was done, the entire room stood up and clapped for me. I got overwhelmed and had to walk out quickly. Emotions got the best of me, and I didn’t realize how emotionally I’d react.

Wexler: Why did you become a police officer in Camden County?

Chief Wysocki: My father was hired here in Camden in 1974. There’s a picture of my dad in uniform with me next to him at about 5 years old in a little police uniform. I never wanted to do anything else in life. I just wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. My whole youth I wanted to become a police officer, and I did in 1991.

I never aspired to be chief. Every year there were different challenges in the city. I’m so proud of everything I personally accomplished, and, more importantly, everything the police department and the city itself accomplished.

But I never thought about what comes after, and I’m still trying to comprehend the next chapter.

Wexler: What was Camden like during the first half of your career?

Chief Wysocki: The crack epidemic really took hold of the city. Every year it seemed our violent crime rate was in the top three in the country. It was so violent here that I think we became numb to what we saw on a daily basis. So many people were being shot, robbed, and killed. The drug war really consumed the city.

People were sticking each other up for profit. They were doing home invasions. They were doing drive-by shootings. At the end of the day, it was about money and territory.

Camden is unique because you don’t have super-gangs here. But you have blocks that families have run for generations, and they would die for that block. It was very tough to break that culture.

The police did the best that we could, but we could never turn the corner.

Wexler: And you had a number of outside chiefs in a row, correct?

Chief Wysocki: It was a different leader every year. Everybody said the same thing, but I don’t think they understood the history of the city or had the right connections. You could almost set your clock for the date and time when the next chief would come in. There was no stability and no leadership.

Wexler: How was the department’s relationship with the community at that time?

Chief Wysocki: There really was none. There were a few community stakeholders who would tell us what they wanted, but we thought we knew what the community needed, and we imposed our crime plans on the community instead of working with them. It was well-intended, but we never made any headway. We had a lot of arrests and seized a ton of weapons, but things kept getting worse, not better.

Wexler: What changed when Scott Thomson became chief in 2008?

Chief Wysocki: We started to meet with and listen to the community. We started to hold commanders accountable for reducing crime. And there was an element of corruption at that time that was removed by the FBI with the assistance of our internal affairs unit, and I was actually commander of internal affairs at the time.

It was a challenge. It’s like turning an aircraft carrier 180 degrees. It’s not that easy to do.

Wexler: Then you had severe economic cutbacks, correct?

Chief Wysocki: I hear people talking about “defunding” the police now, and we truly were defunded in 2011. Half our police department was laid off. Our violent crime rate was already leading the nation, and you had to look to other countries to find a point of comparison for our violent crime rate in 2012. It was a scary time for the city.

Then the elected leaders disbanded the Camden City Police Department, which I never thought would happen. There was a lot of anxiety through that transition. But they started the Camden County Police Department and, looking back, it’s probably the best thing that ever happened for the city.

Wexler: How did crime and your relationship to the community change after the county Police Department was formed?

Chief Wysocki: Officers assigned to each neighborhood started going door to door introducing themselves. We started to build relationships with the community and stopped judging our success on how many arrests we made and how many tickets we wrote. We changed the philosophy. If there are children outside playing, we know we’re effective on that block.

Policing can’t change things by itself. There have to be partnerships with social services, schools, clergy, community stakeholders, and the residents themselves. We had success together. It wasn’t because of some great crime plan that we developed.

Wexler: How did agency change during this time period?

Chief Wysocki: We started seeing double-digit crime reductions every year. You wouldn’t think we could beat the previous year, then we’d see another double-digit reduction.

Officers got callous back when we were Camden PD, and they thought crime would never change. Now we were seeing kids outside playing and businesses were starting to move into Camden. The cops had a sense of pride in the reduction in violence and the community partnerships. They really felt empowered by the change, and they saw that cops matter.

Wexler: You also made changes to your use-of-force policy and training, correct?

Chief Wysocki: I don’t think we’ve done anything bigger than introducing ICAT and de-escalation. That’s probably the biggest change I’ve ever seen in policing. We have 100% buy-in here at our department. Officers see that they’re protecting themselves and also protecting the people they’re encountering. They’re able to de-escalate situations. We have so much credibility in the community now because of the way we’re teaching our officers to de-escalate situations.

We had a protest this weekend. We identified what the protesters were upset about and were able to call an audible to remove something they were upset about. It completely de-escalated the situation, and the march went on successfully.

De-escalation is just so important in policing today. It gives you so much credibility in the community.

Wexler: Your officers just defused a situation involving a man with a knife, right?

Chief Wysocki: Yes, a man armed with a knife definitely had a mental illness. Our watch commander told our officers to use de-escalation tactics over the radio, reinforcing what we’re supposed to do. The officers were talking about de-escalation and developing game plans. Everything they’re taught to do is in the culture now. We’re very proud that they were able to defuse that situation and the outcome was a success. But we still see teaching moments in that film, and things that we can do better. We’re using body-worn camera footage as game tape and Monday-morning quarterbacking ourselves. The outcome was great, but we could’ve done it better.

Wexler: What was your approach to following a very successful chief like Scott Thomson?

Chief Wysocki: We had a game plan that was working like never before, but there were things we could build upon to keep moving the ball forward. Scott told me to make it my own and continue to grow and get better. And we did.

You have to stick with things that are working. I didn’t want to have an ego and do things my way just to put my name it. I thought the best way to navigate my tenure was to keep that game plan and continue to build and grow. And it’s really been successful.

Wexler: What were the demonstrations like in Camden this summer?

Chief Wysocki: I found out we were going to have several marches and some of the people weren’t really fans of the police. One of the organizers, Yolanda Deaver, had great, peaceful intentions and a heart of gold.

Marching with them was my way of trying to de-escalate and bring the temperature down here in the city, because it was a powder keg, just like everywhere else in the country. Our officers were in Class A uniforms, not riot gear. We had contingency plans if we weren’t received well. But I met with Yolanda and asked for permission to march with her. She and the community totally embraced us.

We have to look for creative ways to bring the temperature down. It was a challenging summer, but I’m happy with the way it turned out.

Wexler: Is it difficult to transition to the next stage in your career?

Chief Wysocki: It is difficult, but I’ve seen excellent chiefs from other places around the country be stained and forced out by an unfortunate incident. We all know that’s part of the job, but I’m very proud of being able to go out on my own terms after navigating this past year.

Wexler: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Chief Wysocki: We’ve had a lot of support from the elected leadership here. They’ve actually increased our training budget. They’re very, very supportive and want us to be successful. Freeholder Director Cappelli and the county government have been excellent to work for, and I’m very proud of the success we’ve had here. I’ve definitely moved the ball forward, and I look forward to future Chief Rodriguez continuing to advance our department.


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.