Camden chief in fight over new post

Posted: June 28, 2007

Police chief Arturo Venegas' arrival in Camden 11 months ago brought fresh hope for sweeping changes in what was then America's most dangerous city.

The city of 79,000 was awash in blood and despair, its outgunned police department badly in need of a leader to rally it against crime.

But Venegas, 58, hasn't rallied Camden's 500-member police force, according to union leaders. Crime under his watch is mostly undented, though the bedraggled city lost its America's Most Dangerous crown last year. And now, after the murders of four people in three days during the first week of summer, Venegas finds himself in the hot seat.

Tonight, Camden City Council will consider creating a new post of police director, which Venegas - backed by Camden's powerful state-appointed chief executive - wants. The new job would install Venegas permanently as civilian boss of the city police department with the powers of chief executive, no longer under the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.

The debate also is likely to unleash Venegas foes, including a union leader from Sacramento, Calif., where Venegas was chief until taking the Camden job.

The showdown comes at a crucial time in Camden's state-funded struggle to recover from its desperate poverty and staggering unemployment. City leaders say Camden needs a strong police chief to keep public and private investment momentum, much like the boost that Philadelphia got from then-Mayor Ed Rendell's appointment of John Timoney as police commissioner.

Though Venegas hasn't conquered crime, he has made waves. He says most categories of violent crime have dropped - albeit by small amounts - and the recent spike in murders is an "anomaly."

He's shifted five of eight police captains, formed alliances with key community leaders, and has become president of the local Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Police work, he said, is bigger than an "8 to 5" job. It involves making life better for people who might otherwise turn to crime.

Camden police can no more "arrest our way" out of high crime than doctors can cure a brain tumor with aspirin, he said.

"Creating an economically viable community is part of the fight against crime," he said, defending what he says is his "interim" Chamber of Commerce position. "This is the chief's role," he said.

"We're good at putting people in jail, but how do we become a good place to work play and invest," he said. "It is necessary that the community get organized, put our people to work, educate our people, and improve our quality of life. Working with business owners is a good way to do that."

William Murray, the head of Camden's Organization of Police Superiors union, disdained Venegas' role in the Chamber of Commerce.

"He came in and said he would spend 110 percent of his time on the department," said Murray. "He said his kids were grown and his wife had died. If he's president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, how are you focusing all your time on the department?"

Venegas is likely to be judged on how well he has implemented the suggestions of a panel that studied the police force just before he arrived in August 2006. The panel, which included representatives from the community and local, state and national law enforcement experts, suggested that police officers work steady shifts, use modern crime-mapping technology, and form closer alliances with residents. The panel also set performance goals for detectives and top brass and said the Police Department top ranks should be overhauled.

Venegas said he's committed to the changes, and he wants to include his being named to the proposed post of civilian public safety director.

"If become director, I can guarantee I will play a more direct role," he said.

Not everyone thinks that would be good. The former police union leader in Sacramento is so devoted to bringing down Venegas that he is flying to tonight's City Council meeting to criticize him.

"I'm going to blast him with the facts," said David Topaz, former president of a Sacramento police union.

Some Camden residents also are lining up against him.

Camden's feisty 82-year-old mayor, Gwendolyn Faison, says she hears growing complaints from inside the Police Department and from residents about Venegas' performance.

"I have gotten complaints from residents," she said, declining to give her own assessment of Venegas' performance.

Camden's state-appointed boss, Theodore Z. Davis, also an interim appointee, backs Venegas.

"I think so far he's done pretty good," said Davis. "He has good ideas. And I think he's good with structure and discipline, and he has a bundle of experience."

Camden's police union leaders say they believe a permanent police chief should be selected from the department's ranks.

The state officials who have the power to run Camden have said they believe the Police Department should function under a state-appointed leader for at least two years before a police chief from the department's ranks takes over.

Venegas said he has lobbied "movers and shakers," including Democratic leader George Norcross 3d, state Sen. Wayne Bryant, Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts for Police Department resources.

Camden residents complain that the debate over police leadership puts their lives on the line.

"It's worse than it was," said Corinne Powers, owner of Corinne's Place restaurant in the Parkside neighborhood.

"I'm sick of meetings and nothing happens," she said. "They're going to have walking officers and there will be [officers] riding horses, they say. Well, where are the horses with officers riding? The only thing the officers are riding are in their cruisers as they ride right past the crime."


Contact staff writer Dwight Ott at 609-779-3844 or dott@phillynews.com.

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