Updated on September 6, 2016
Camden, New Jersey, has long had a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities in America. In 2012, the city made an unprecedented move by terminating its entire 270-person police force in favor of hiring non-unionized workers supervised by the county. Officials at that time said that union contracts, in a city with a major lack of revenue, made it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street. Two years after the overhaul, the department employed 411 officers with nearly the same budget.
During a visit to the city last year, President Obama praised the Camden County Police Department for it’s drastic turnaround in its culture and its ability to build community relations. Obama called the department a “symbol of promise for the nation.” Still, the city’s beefed-up police force looks drastically different than the city that surrounds it: While 94 percent of the city’s population is non-white, white officers make up more than half of the Camden’s officers.* High-profile police shootings in cities like Ferguson, Cleveland, and Falcon Heights, have highlighted communities around the nation that are fractured along racial lines, and have tense relationships with the police.
Officer Cabria Davis, who was born and raised in Camden, has worked for the Camden County Police Department for two years. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke to Davis about her school-patrol assignment; what it takes to build trust in a community; processing police brutality as a black, female cop; and why helping kids interact with police is good for everyone in the community. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Adrienne Green: What inspired you to become a police officer?
Cabria Davis: I was born and raised in the city of Camden, New Jersey. When I was 9 years old, my father was murdered. He was shot and died. I really didn't have a close relationship with him. When that happened, it changed something in me as a person because I felt like I was robbed of that relationship. I wanted to make a positive difference [in the community] because even though I couldn't help my father, maybe I could grow up and help somebody else.
Green: What is the community in Camden, New Jersey, like? What are some of the problems you’re looking out for?
Davis: Right now, the environment, demographic makeup, businesses, and residences are constantly changing. The government is trying to improve the quality of life of Camden with new schools to give the younger generation better opportunities. Businesses are also trying to create something positive in the city, allow the residents to have jobs, and give them a more positive atmosphere.
Of course, as the police, we are trying to build a level of trust with the citizens here because our particular style of policing is more community-oriented. We try to let them know that our presence is constant: We're trying to learn, understand them and what they require from us. At the end of the day, we work for them.
Green: How do you establish that trust?
Davis: We have pop-up barbecues for the kids. Officers go to these barbecues and play games; we also cook for the kids. The kids get a chance to see us as regular people, and we let them know that we're their friends. Then, of course, we have the community meetings where our upper-management talks to community leaders about the issues that they are having. They also just implemented the school patrol, which is when the department assigns an officer to patrol the schools.
I am assigned to the five schools in North Camden, and I patrol them between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. I talk to the teachers, principals, and students. That helps us establish another level of trust and communication with them because if the schools have a concern—be it with a student, a parent, or things like traffic—they have us right there. I take 15 to 20 minutes each hour per school, and I'll just rotate. I try to do at least four to five patrols of each school per school day. One principal asked if I could patrol between the hours of 11 and 1 because that's his primary lunch period and there were a lot of high-energy students. I try my best to accommodate the needs of each principal, teacher, or school.
Green: What is an average day like as a patrol officer at five schools?
Davis: Before I patrolled schools, I was assigned to the neighborhood-response team, which is proactive policing. We did walking patrols in order to adjust crime conditions, drugs, and assaults. The special assignment for patrolling the schools is a safety initiative that was started by our district lieutenant. The most important aspect is the children. If you build a relationship with them, they get used to seeing you, you become a constant and consistent factor in their life. Then they’ll say, "Oh, this officer is friendly. This officer comes to see me at school every day." It may help to combat [negative feelings] if they had a friend or family member that had a negative experience with the police—because that colors their judgment as children because they learn based on what they see, and they absorb all of that.
I've had children ask me, “Do you lock up kids? My uncle was locked up," and it makes them sad because they don't understand. But then, if they see you and you say hi to them, you tell them your name, shake their hand, give them stickers—it creates that trust with them. I've had instances where a parent will tell a child not to speak to me because I'm a police officer. That’s not a good thing because as police officers, if your child is lost or in danger or something has happened, they should want to come to us. If you're telling them, as their parent, not to come to us, that is something that we have to fix. Maybe that parent had a negative relationship with the police, so now they're passing that on to their child and their child has to grow up with that mentality.
Davis: If I was conducting my proactive patrols on the street level and I observed a fight, as an officer I would have to intervene so that no one gets hurt. But in the schools, it's not so much my job to enforce if I see two students fighting. I'm just there as a supplement to the principal or to the teacher, I’m not going to physically intervene because that is overstepping a boundary. At the end of the day, that principal, teacher, or parent is responsible for that student. They don't want to feel like police is singling out their children.
Green: You’ve worked for the Camden County Police Department for two years. Have you seen the community-police trust that you’re trying to build improve?
Davis: It ebbs and flows. There are periods where it is very positive. Citizens get used to seeing us on the street, and they appreciate the increased police presence. They appreciate us walking our beats, patrolling the stores, playing basketball with the kids, and getting to know the people in the community.
Then, with everything that’s going on in the media, it changes the dynamic of that relationship. There are questions like, “Okay, I've known this officer for X amount of months, but here is this [instance of police violence] in the media.” Now it's gotten to the point where we approach people, and they are like, "What you want? I didn't do anything wrong.” We're just trying to continue to build that level of trust, because we know what the media shows and we're just trying to show people that not every situation is that way. There are negative and positive engagements, just like with every other aspect of working or personal relationships. We had that level of trust, and now we have to work to rebuild it.
Green: It appears that 94 percent of Camden's residents are non-white, but 54 percent of the police force is made up of white officers.* Amid the tense relationships between police and communities of color, has your ability to build trust been hampered?
Davis: Even though Camden is predominately minority-based, and our police force is [54 percent] Caucasian—I don't think race affects how we police. [Note: After this interview was published, a representative from the Camden County Police Department supplied updated racial-composition data; white officers now make up 54 percent of the force.]
Of course, the [minority] citizens feel like those [white] officers don't understand their personal views about the city, and they would be more comfortable speaking to someone like me. Residents may have these negative viewpoints, but once they talk to an officer they realize, "Oh, just because he is not from my city, just because he does not look like me, doesn't mean that he doesn't care."
It doesn't matter if it’s an African American officer or a Caucasian officer; most of the time what people see is our uniform, so we have to learn how to get past that. Yes, I wear this uniform. Yes, I wear this badge; however, behind all of this I am still somebody's daughter, somebody's spouse. I'm still a human. I still have feelings. It doesn't matter what a person’s race is. My job as an officer is to be here for you.
Green: I understand that you are a black, female police officer. How do you balance those personal and professional identities?
Davis: It’s a case-by-case basis. I had an incident where one of my fellow officers, who is Caucasian, had a negative engagement, and a gentleman that he spoke to felt uncomfortable. The civilian felt like he was being harassed because of the color of his skin. I said, "Listen sir, [the other officer’s] engagement with you has nothing to do with [his] race. I could just as easily have engaged you if I've never seen you before, but you would take a different attitude toward [the other officer] because of his race.” Our job is to know who is in our community. That's what we do.
I understand because I'm from this city, and that helps. Some people are more comfortable speaking to me because they're like, "You understand because you're black or you're a woman." I get that. That trust in me [as a black woman] helps to build trust between not only me and that person, but also that person and other officers whether they’re Caucasian, Hispanic, or Asian. If I can act as a positive tether between those two people, then at the end of the day, that's what counts.
Green: When you look at policing in communities nationwide, do you still feel that race should be as irrelevant as you see it being in Camden?
Davis: It depends on the community, because different communities have their own way of policing. It doesn't necessarily mean it's racially based or racially motivated. People view the world through their own feelings, thoughts, and actions. It might not necessarily be what the case is, but you can only base your viewpoints on what you've experienced. The engagement of an encounter might not be racially-based, but because of your personal experience, that's how you view it and that's not always the case.
Green: Do the parts of your identity—as a black woman and as a trained police officer—weigh differently into your interpretation of these types of events?
Davis: As an officer, you don't know what another officer sees or feels at a particular moment, so we have no right to judge that person. But at the end of the day, if all of a person’s engagements with police have been negative, naturally they're going to be a little afraid to interact with the police because they don't know what's going to happen. I can't verbalize my opinion because, at the end of the day, as an officer, I have to be completely unbiased.
As a human, my first reaction was to get angry and upset about certain things. But being an officer forces you to take a step back and look at everything from all sides. For example, in a domestic dispute, if you have two people fighting and two different sides of the argument, you have to listen to all sides and then use objectivity to determine how you handle the situation. You can't allow your personal bias or personal experience color your judgment as an officer, because then you're not effective. If you go over there and the first thing you want to do is lock somebody up, you're not helping him or her. You're just creating a bigger issue.
Green: What's the most rewarding and the most challenging part of your job?
Davis: The most rewarding, of course, is the kids. If you're having a bad day as an officer, you just left a domestic dispute, and then a kid hugs you or draws you a picture or makes a little snowflake, it makes you feel good. I keep them in my bag.
I had a little girl give me a book. She'll always see me and ask, “Do you still have the book I gave you?” I keep it in my bag so she knows how much I treasure that book. It doesn't matter if it was a $2 book. It's just the fact that she felt comfortable enough with me to want to do this positive thing for me. You’re trying to give this child, who has to grow up and become their own person, positive energy. You have the power as an authority figure to, in a way, change their life.
I had another situation where an older man, who was involved in drugs, almost died. I was able to get help to him, and he told me a few months later that he actually remembered me. He said, “I'm in school now. I don't use drugs anymore. I go to church and I work out.” Whenever he sees me, he always wants to shake my hand because he feels like I saved him.
To have that positive impact on somebody's life makes this career rewarding, but then of course, you have the situations where you have to lock up a parent and their children are there, and it breaks your heart. It’s like, "I don't want to see this kid cry. I don't want to hurt this kid, but I have to get this negative person away from them." It hurts you because just like I don't want to be a bad person. I don't want to be seen as a bad person to this kid, but I have to do what I have to do to protect them.
As a human, that type of stuff affects you on an emotional level because you see the type of emotional damage that humans do to other humans in fits of anger. It bothers me because I have to be objective, but at the same time, once I take that uniform off, I’m still a human underneath there. You still have to think about your whole day. You have to learn how to compartmentalize in a way so that it doesn't have a negative effect on your personality. If you're angry because someone hurt someone else, and you bring that home, you can create problems in your family life.
At the same time, you can use that positive relationship that you have at home and bring that back to work and give a piece of that positive relationship to change someone’s day for the better.
Green: Has your job has influenced your identity?
Davis: I've learned to use what I've learned through work—ethical trainings and how to de-escalate conflict—in my personal life. Before I became an officer, I was a very emotional person. The job has shown me to look at every situation from a different person’s aspect, not just your own aspect. It forces you to take a step back and say, “Okay, I'm not always right, so let me just take a step back and think about this other person's feelings.”
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a firefighter, a paramedic, and a prison guard.
* This article originally stated that white officers make up 68 percent of the police force; that stat came from older data, before the department's restructuring in 2012.