Camden police petition: Enough names, but still off base

Posted: February 18, 2012

Camden City residents opposed to a proposed regional police department collected enough signatures on a petition to force a citywide vote on the issue, but the petition itself was found legally deficient, city officials ruled Friday.

The residents' group - led by Vance Bowman and Ali Sloan El, and backed by Fraternal Order of Police lodge president John Williamson - has 10 days to correct the problems and resubmit the petition.

If approved when resubmitted, the petition, which proposes a slight rewrite of the city police ordinance, would first be considered by City Council. If Council rejected the change, voters would consider the matter in November.

The signatures collected by the Citizens Community Committee for Public Safety support altering the police ordinance to say: "There is hereby created and maintained in, for and by the City of Camden a Police Department. . . ."

As Williamson sees it, "this preempts any abolishment of the city police department because this says the police departments should be maintained by the people."

A county police initiative that would dissolve the existing department and rehire no more than 49 percent of city officers for the new force has been in the works since the summer, when Gov. Christie and the Camden County freeholders started pushing for shared services.

Hired as a consultant for the new force, former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John F. Timoney offered suggestions but few details. Ideally, Camden would have about 400 officers, Timoney's report said, but it did not address financing.

On Feb. 1, the committee hand-delivered 3,494 signatures to Municipal Clerk Luis Pastoriza. Under state law, if the group gathered signatures amounting to 15 percent of the city turnout in last November's general election - or 970 people - and overcame likely legal challenges, the city would be required to put the matter before voters and abide by the outcome.

The municipal clerk found that though the petitions contained more than enough valid signatures from registered voters (1,997), they lacked proper affidavits and documentation on the "committee of petitioners."

Because each petition sheet lacked the names and addresses of all five committee members, the group will have to regather signatures, said New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center executive director Renee Steinhagen.

Group members are not worried.

"Whatever we need to do, we'll do," Bowman said.

But even if the petitioners meet the 10-day deadline and correct the errors, Steinhagen, who defends many petitioners throughout the state, said she did not see how the petition's proposed wording would prevent the county and city from going forth with its plan.

"They could transform the department to be a city police division within a county police force," Steinhagen said. "They should add language that makes it clear that the department be an independent police force . . . cannot be merged with or affiliated with. I would use all sorts of language."

In a series of nine community meetings, Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd and Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson have stressed the need for more police to keep residents safe.

"We're not saying a regional force will solve all Camden crime . . . but in Camden, every cop counts," Thomson told about 50 people gathered Monday at El Salmista Church in North Camden.

Some residents complained that when students are let out of school, drug dealers are doing business in plain sight, and there is no police presence. Thomson responded that there aren't enough officers to cover every school area at dismissal time.

Camden resident Theo Spencer asked at the meeting why there was a need for a county force if the city would be the only area covered.

Redd said other municipalities were looking to join, but when pressed for names, she said: "I'm not at liberty to say now."

County spokeswoman Joyce Gabriel could not confirm those reports Friday.

"Until someone comes out and says, 'I want to do this,'" the plan will remain with just Camden City being part of the county force, Gabriel said.

The last community meeting was held Thursday. City spokesman Robert Corrales said Redd and other city officials would go through the residents' questions and concerns. The mayor will hold another meeting or two to "report out," Corrales said.


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

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