CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — This city, long among the nation’s poorest and most crime-ridden, is on the verge of dismantling its police department and starting anew with a force run by the county government.
City officials are making the move to increase the number of officers while keeping the cost the same by averting rules negotiated with a union that city officials have seen as unwilling to compromise. Unless the union — which is skeptical of the stated motivations for the change — reaches a deal with the county, no more than 49 percent of the city’s current officers could join the new force and those that do will get pay cuts.
John Wilson, a 57-year-old unemployed baker who’s lived in the city his whole life, thinks it’s worth a try.
“The police in Camden clearly haven’t been doing their job,” he said last week as he walked to his home in the Parkside neighborhood, which has seen six homicides since the start of 2011. “Any change has to be better. It can’t get worse now.”
Officials say there are about 170 drug markets operating in this city of 77,000 near Philadelphia, more than 700 people on parole and 600 registered sex offenders.
The murder rate is unthinkably high. In 2007, Newark attracted national attention for a record number of homicides. Yet its murder rate that year — 37 per 100,000 residents — was well below Camden’s 53 per 100,000 that year. As of Friday, there had been 47 murders this year. The city record of 58 was set in 1995.
Two recent killings have become tragic symbols of the drugs and violence that plague the city. Since late August, two children, ages 2 and 6, have been killed, allegedly by people authorities believe were high on PCP.
The city has the nation’s highest poverty rate with more than two residents in five living in poverty, census data show.
The big factories that once made Camden an industrial boomtown have been gone for a generation. Over the past decade, revitalization efforts focused on expanding hospitals and universities, which brought some life to downtown but had a less discernible effect on neighborhoods where even the best-kept blocks have abandoned homes.
The city expects only $25 million of its $150 million next proposed budget to come from property taxes. Most of the rest is supplied by state aid — and that’s declining.
In January 2011, the city government conducted massive layoffs, including nearly half the police department and about one-third of the firefighters. Since then, all the laid-off public safety workers have been called back, but their numbers have fallen through attrition. Now, there are 270 police officers, down from 450 in 2005 and 368 the day before the layoffs.
Police Chief Scott Thomson, who is slated to lead the Camden County Police Department’s Metro Division, points to crime statistics for the two years before the layoffs that showed the crime declining. He says it’s because of intensive community policing efforts that came about when detectives were reassigned from desk jobs to patrols and the force was able to be more proactive.
With the smaller force, he said, walking and biking beats are used more sparingly.
A study a year ago found that 400 properly deployed officers could effectively patrol the city. The county plan aims to have 401 officers and more than 60 civilians, up from fewer than 20 now. The civilians would do administrative work and some crime-scene investigations, freeing up officers.
Thomson says that’s what can make a real difference in the city. “It’s very difficult for open-air drug markets to exist when a police officer is walking the beat on that corner,” he said.
County officials started discussing starting a police force about two years ago. The idea, backed by Gov. Chris Christie, was to help the county’s 37 towns — many of them small — save money by joining the force voluntarily. Small-town mayors had reservations about giving up their local forces and the aim changed to giving county’s biggest city its own division.
Louis Cappelli, the director of the county freeholder board, says the force will cost about $65 million per year, the same as the smaller force costs now. He said the cost of having such a force under the current union contract would be about $85 million per year.
The Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents Camden’s rank-and-file officers is upset that they have not been presented with a formal plan.
Cappelli says officers in the new department would have base salaries that are the same or higher than what they make now — ranging from $31,000 for a rookie to about $80,000.
Officers’ health insurance contributions would increase, and officers would also lose longevity and shift differential payments that combined can boost their pay up to 22 percent.
The plan is to start hiring for the new force in October and have a mix of city and county police patrol the city during a training period before shutting down the city department sometime in the first few months of 2013.
The FOP is fighting the transformation in court, but the lodge president, John Williamson, said he entered talks last week with county officials. “At this point, the most important thing is to do anything we can to save jobs,” said Williamson.
Helene Pierson, the executive director of Heart of Camden, a nonprofit group that rehabilitates and sells homes in a historic district, sees all the focus on the structure of the police department as a distraction from the murder crisis and bristles at the public-relations campaign to promote the police force change as a panacea for a deeply troubled city.
Along with a priest, she’s launched a campaign called Stop the Trauma, Violence and Murder.
On Oct. 1, they plan to put crosses outside City Hall as a reminder of the people who have been slain in the city this year.
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