The Philadelphia skyline as viewed from Camden, N.J. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

Louis Cappelli Jr., director of the Camden County Board of Commissioners, is standing by a strongly worded comment about crime in Philadelphia that described the city as a “society of lawlessness.”

Several members of Philadelphia City Council denounced the commissioner’s comments, and Philly Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson issued a press release calling for an apology

Cappelli Jr. made the statement Wednesday while discussing a shooting at this year’s Fourth of July celebrations in Camden, N.J., where a 6-year-old appeared to get caught in the crossfire and was shot in the knee. A teen from Philly was taken into custody in relation to the event and then released, per police.

He decried the horrific nature of a young child getting shot while celebrating Independence Day, something with which no one could disagree. Then he verbally attacked the city across the river. 

“We just want to send a message to the thugs and criminals and gun-bearing freaks over in Philadelphia who live in a society of lawlessness — we don’t want you here,” Cappelli Jr. said.

“Stay out of Camden. Stay out of Camden County. Stay out of New Jersey. Keep your barbaric behavior in Philadelphia,” he continued. 

Gilmore Richarson called Cappelli Jr.’s comments “derogatory statements” that wrongfully cast a pall over the entire city. 

On Thursday, Cappelli Jr. responded to the criticism, saying he stands by his comments.

“I would not change a word or modify anything related to my deep frustration with gun crime and an innocent 6-year-old having her life changed forever because her family simply wanted to come out to watch fireworks,” he said, in part. “This certainly wasn’t focused on the law-abiding citizens of the city and I think they are aware of that fact.”

How do Philly and Camden’s situations compare?

There was more to the comments than shown in some of the screenshots that elicited intense debate on social media, including an apparent dig on the Philadelphia Police Department and District Attorney’s Office. 

“On this side of the river, we find you,” Cappelli Jr. said, with reference to Camden law enforcement officers. “And then we prosecute you and put you in jail.”

Philadelphia’s problems will inevitably be bigger than Camden’s, as the South Jersey city is home to less than 80,000 people, versus Philly’s 1.6 million. But the relative frequency of shootings and murders is sadly similar.

In 2020 and 2021, the city of Camden recorded 23 homicides each year, or around 3.2 per 10,000 residents. In Philly, the same years saw 499 and 562 homicides respectively — 2021 remains the city’s worst year on record — around 3.4 per 10,000 residents. During those years, the total number of shooting victims recorded in each city averaged around 15 per 10,000 residents

‘We all hear that dog whistle’

Several people reacting online did express agreement with Cappelli’s comments. 

When Philadelphia electeds posted that it wasn’t okay for a neighboring official to trash the city as a lawless zone, their mentions filled up with Philly residents clamoring to agree with the South Jersey official. 

But commenters dismayed by Cappelli’s words found much to criticize, including the long-established fact that the city of Camden and Philly share many problems — especially when it comes to the drug trade, as multiple criminal investigations have shown. 

From describing the South Jersey city as “East Philly” to quipping that nobody is going to Camden “unless they owe people in Kensington money,” the irony of these comments coming from a Camden County official was not lost on many observers. 

One commenter couldn’t help but notice the implications about Philly’s police department and wanted to make sure the folks at PPD were on notice, tweeting that they had 48 hours to drop a diss record. 

Sometimes it’s unclear what constitutes racially charged language, but the use of “thug” in certain contexts has been noted and described as racist for many years. 

Even a figure like John McWhorter — a New York Times columnist who recently published a book on what he sees as the excesses of contemporary anti-racism — bluntly describes the use of “thug” as a “nominally polite way of using the N-word.” 

People reacting to Cappelli’s comments couldn’t help but notice the same.

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...