Camden Council examines pact on regional police force

Posted: August 02, 2011

A memorandum of understanding that allows the state, Camden County, and Camden City to start planning a county-operated Police Metro Division was presented Tuesday night at Camden City Council's caucus.

The agreement was drafted as a way to "ensure city participation" in the regionalization talks that have gone on for a few months among some county officials, said City Attorney Marc Riondino.

City Council is set to vote on the memorandum Tuesday, and the county freeholders are to vote Aug. 16. If the agreement moves forward, a plan for a Camden County police department must be in place by Sept. 30 to send to the state.

Saying that consolidation of services is a "responsible and prudent measure" to improve efficiency, the state Department of Community Affairs' Division of Local Government Services drafted the memo as a way to get Camden City on board and the process moving quickly.

"The state is setting forth the timeline," Riondino said.

Sept. 30 is also the deadline for municipalities to apply to the state for municipal aid, of which Camden received $69 million last year. This year, $159 million in aid is to be disbursed among various municipalities.

Talks of a regionalized force began earlier this year, involving county freeholders and mayors and administrators for some municipalities, including Collingswood, Voorhees, and Audubon. Although officials put together a PowerPoint presentation and a question-and-answer session on the benefits of a county force, no concrete plans have been established.

"This puts all of us together," said Camden City spokesman Robert Corrales, adding that Phase I would begin with the different parties' meeting and sharing information, such as personnel records and statistics.

Officers in the new division would be paid by the city, but Camden would be allowed to enter into a contract with the county, thus renegotiating health benefits and other costs associated with each police officer, according to Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli, who has been leading the regionalization discussions.

The average price tag for a Camden city police officer, including salary, benefits, and pension, is between $115,000 and $140,000, according to city and police officials. The cost for sergeants and higher-ranking officers is greater.

City Council would need to vote to disband the city department and then approve a shared-services agreement with the county for the countywide force to be formed.

Only 49 percent of the city's current police force would be hired back, said county spokeswoman Joyce Gabriel. Any more than that, she said, would constitute a bargaining unit. However, the department could hire laid-off officers from other cities across the state, Cappelli said.

Some current officers did not take that news well.

"None of us were privy to this announcement prior to this happening. It's a stab in the back because it is something that has been talked about. It's been threatened. . . . We are being used as political pawns," said an officer with more than 15 years of experience who was not authorized to speak with reporters.

And some officers who were laid off, then rehired, could again face layoffs.

On Jan. 18, Mayor Dana L. Redd laid off more than 160 police officers and 60 firefighters to close a $26 million budget deficit. Since then, she has hired back 74 police officers and 31 firefighters with the aid of federal and state grants.

However, 55 of those police officers were hired back through a $2.5 million South Jersey Port Corp. payment in lieu of taxes that was to last just through June 30. The mayor had said she planned to apply for more state and federal grants to keep them on board; meanwhile, they continue to be paid from the city's general fund.

If the plan for a county police force goes through, those officers could be laid off again.

"Unfortunately, part of this process is pain for existing personnel," Cappelli said. "We're not happy about it."

The other regionalization plan being discussed is having countywide specialized services, such as a detectives bureau, a K-9 unit, and a SWAT team. In addition, the county is looking at having a Camden County police academy for mandatory in-service training of officers, and providing joint purchasing for police departments.

Both regionalization options would continue to be looked at separately, as "two roads," Cappelli said. Those roads would merge for municipalities, such as Camden, that are interested in being part of a larger county force.

Cappelli and other advocates of the regionalization effort, including county Democratic Party power broker George E. Norcross 3d, say that by having the city's police operate under a county department, more officers would be patrolling the streets.

The Fraternal Order of Police put out a two-page memo titled "The plain truth about countywide policing," in which it disputes some of the county's points on the benefits of a county force, such as that residents would save money under such a move.

One of its biggest critiques is that there has been "no public input on the creation of a County PD."

"People are scared. People are concerned," FOP president John Williamson said, referring to Camden's officers. "The county had layoffs, too, so [officers] are wondering how the county could sustain a new police department."

Williamson said he was surprised to hear that the city had agreed to be part of the plan because it laid off almost half its police force in January.

In a recent release, Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.) said of the plan: "City government does not have sufficient funds to maintain an adequately staffed police department. And there is no indication that this situation will change."

Council President Frank Moran said he expected Council would approve the memorandum at next week's meeting.

"Our shortcoming is we don't have the manpower to provide necessary police protection," Moran said, adding that discussing possible county department plans would be worthwhile. "There's no telling what regionalization means."


Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or @InqCVargas on Twitter.

Inquirer staff writer Darran Simon contributed to this article.

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