With new county-run force, Camden police layoffs loom

Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said that the county-force plan stemmed from a "current rise in violent activities." The city has recorded 39 homicides this year.
Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said that the county-force plan stemmed from a "current rise in violent activities." The city has recorded 39 homicides this year. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 09, 2012

Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd announced Tuesday that she would begin dismantling the city's police department by the end of the month to make way for a new county-run force, putting a definitive timeline on a plan that has been under negotiation for nearly two years.

A state-required layoff plan is being drawn up, and Camden's roughly 270 officers could serve their last day on the job by the end of the year, putting city and county officials on a tight schedule to get the new force up and running. Less than half of existing officers would be allowed to join what is being called the Camden Metro Police Division, projected to number close to 400 officers.

"Given the current rise in violent activities, this decision has been made solely on what is right for our residents. Nothing more; nothing less," Redd said at Tuesday's City Council meeting. "We need to assure our residents that all life matters and that we are serious about making our city safe."

The city has recorded 39 homicides so far this year, 12 more than this time last year. If the pace continues, Camden would exceed 2011's total of 49 and could surpass the record of 58 in 1995.

Decades since its days as a manufacturing center, Camden, with more than 170 open-air drug markets in nine square miles, has regularly been ranked among the country's most dangerous cities.

The county-run force has been pitched as an economical means to increase police presence in the cash-strapped city and has the backing of powerful political figures, including Gov. Christie. Batches of county officers would begin patrolling the streets as the current force is being phased out, organizers said.

The police union and local activists continue a court battle against the creation of the metro division, which would operate with lower pay and benefits. John Williamson, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Camden, called the mayor's announcement "a farce and a sham."

"They created the crime problem when they laid off half the police force and gave the criminals carte blanche," he said. "You subject those who remain to atrocious working conditions, force them into overtime, and at the end, you just kick them out."

Councilman Brian Coleman said the answer was not a new force but rather a better deployment of the city's existing officers. He contended that officers were being assigned to patrol in higher numbers along the city's waterfront during concerts and around Cooper University Hospital.

"They need to be on the streets and hitting these open-air drug markets," he said. "When we have these concerts, the people who go [to Susquehanna Bank Center] get more police protection than anyone in the city. That's not right."

Police Chief Scott Thomson said the waterfront and medical campus had contracts with the city for police to provide security.

"With 1962 staffing levels, we don't have a deployment problem; we have a capacity problem," he said. "However, the finite resources are assigned in alignment with criminal activity and intelligence."

But with Redd ready to move on layoffs, the process of creating the county-run force is already under way.

Joe Cordero, a former top state police official and director of East Orange's police force who began consulting in July, said last week that he planned to overlap the winding-down of the existing force with the creation of the metro division.

The new force would be field-trained for 17 to 19 weeks and hit the street in batches of 25 or so recruits, he said. The county officers would be dispatched to high crime areas and may back up Camden officers when needed, he said.

"Our focus is going to be heavily on foot patrols," he said. "For the criminals, they are going to see a lot of what they don't want to see. For the law-abiding citizens of Camden, they are going to see a lot of what they do want to see."

But there are still critical details to be worked out. The cost - and potential savings - remain unclear.

Camden County freeholders want a state guarantee that they will not be left on the hook for the force if the state cuts aid to the city. With its property tax base in decline, Camden relies on the state for more than $115 million a year or about 70 percent of its budget.

Negotiations with the governor's office continue, and so far no date has been set for the creation of the metro division, said county spokesman Dan Keashen, but field training could begin as early as October.

Supporters of the plan have said the county force would start with the metro division, but so far suburban towns have balked at the possibility of joining the force.

Over the last few weeks, Cordero has been busy figuring out how to create a law enforcement body from scratch, simultaneously setting up the organizational structure while performing basics such as sorting out equipment and choosing a background check to screen officers.

"We recognize the timing is an issue we are doing a variety of things at once to make sure this happens sooner rather than later," he said. "But we're also being very sensitive to the fact that we have to do this right."


Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876, jaosborne@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @osborneja.

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