Police overtime debate in Camden

Union officials fear the extra shifts at big concerts will be used to justify the creation of a county force.

Posted: September 24, 2012

 

Thousands flocked to the WXTU concert on the Camden waterfront last year, as they do each year, lured by the country-music acts, the hours of tailgating, and the free admission.

Camden police also circle the date on their calendars, for the crowd can get unruly.

That June evening at the Susquehanna Bank Center, however, things really got out of hand: Hundreds of intoxicated people unsettled nearby city streets and some officers were physically assaulted. "There were also a significant number of medical runs," Deputy Chief Michael Lynch said. To add to the police stress, an officer on traffic detail for the concert was stabbed, though not by a concertgoer.

The event spawned a city response that rank-and-file police, as well as one council member, are calling an expensive overreaction: More police - sometimes three times more - are routinely being sent to the waterfront events than requested by the organizers, overtime has zoomed, and officers complain of increasingly being forced to come in on days off.

Police union officials also allege there's something insidious in the mushrooming overtime - a way to justify replacing the city police with a controversial county force.

The $3.1 million in overtime in the fiscal year that ended June 30 was the most in five years. Overtime has cost $1.7 million in the first 10 weeks of this fiscal year.

With a depleted roster of 270 officers, Camden police supervisors are dedicating a third of the force to work some weekend concerts. (After layoffs last year, the department is down about 100 officers from its peak.)

Rank-and-file officers say in interviews that while the overtime can be a lure, many of them are fatigued from having to cover multiple shifts.

The beefed-up waterfront security also comes as the city struggles to stem a spate of homicides - 47 so far, nearing last year's 49 and the record 58 in 1995.

Deploying dozens of officers, sometimes up to six hours before the first tailgater trickles in, for so-called secondary employment shifts - when uniformed officers work for a private entity under a city contract - strikes law enforcement officials outside Camden as unusual.

While Camden is reimbursed for the police services - $864,000 this calendar year through Aug. 3, according to city payroll records - the city has been spending more than that, in part because it sends extra officers to the Susquehanna center. The venues only pay for the officers they ask for.

The department has been compelling officers to work the concerts because fewer are volunteering to do so. Officers who are forced to work secondary employment must be paid overtime, resulting in some making $60 to $80 per hour on the waterfront extra shifts - higher than the $44 or $45 hourly rate per officer the venues pay the city.

"Overtime has never been this available," said a veteran officer, who declined to have his name used.

Atlantic City hardly incurs overtime for contracted special events, said Police Capt. William Mazur. The department dispatches only the number agreed upon, and that depends on whether the department of 330 has "a decent amount of manpower" available, he said.

The Shore resort charges entities $67.50 hourly per officer and those officers, unless part of a specialized unit, get $50 hourly pay. The rest of the money goes to city coffers, mainly for gas and maintenance of police vehicles.

"Why here do we have to pick up the tab for everything and everyone?" asks Camden Councilman Brian Coleman, a critic of the Police Department's deployment strategy.

With the city plagued by more than 100 open-air drug markets, he said, "we have more police at concerts than on the streets."

While Lynch would not provide staffing numbers for city patrols, citing department policy, he said the city was adequately staffed even during waterfront concerts.

The officers on secondary employment are called in on their days off so "we don't have to pull resources out of the neighborhoods," he said.

Critics of the planned new county force charge that Camden officials are deliberately inflating police costs to show that operating the current department is unsustainable and the regional force is a less expensive option.

A key pitch for the county force - which so far has drawn interest only from Camden - is that a new contract would enable the city to add officers on patrol by shedding current benefits and perks. The savings, estimated at $14 million, would go toward hiring 130 more officers, county officials say.

Coleman said the city could have hired more officers with the amounts it has already spent on overtime.

Neither the city nor Live Nation, the management company for the Susquehanna center, would reveal the number of officers requested by the waterfront venue for concert duty this year.

While the city has numerous contracts for police services - including with Cooper University Hospital, the Camden County Ferry Avenue Branch library, and Campbell's Field for Riversharks baseball - Susquehanna, which stages dozens of concerts into the fall, puts the heaviest demands on the department, officials said.

The police command decided last year it would no longer let Susquehanna set the number of officers deployed.

"They're making a business decision, but they don't have the expertise to make the decision in terms of public safety resources," Lynch said, noting that the center also has its own security team.

Live Nation declined several requests for an interview.

Lynch could not immediately provide the numbers of arrests and summonses at last year's WXTU show. There were 191 arrests this year.

John Williamson, president of the city Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the rank-and-file officers, said the WXTU concert, which up to 60 officers usually worked in the past, "probably prompted" officials to revisit staffing for similar potentially unruly concerts. But, he said, his members were questioning what they consider to be overstaffing of smaller concerts.

Susquehanna typically requests 15 to 20 officers per concert, said one officer with knowledge of the requests.

This summer, the city sent 66 officers to work the Big Time Rush, a popular music group with a show on the children's cable channel Nickelodeon, according to internal police documents obtained by city activist Ali Sloan El. Susquehanna had requested 22, said another officer familiar with the requests.

Some officers said they make as much as $800 a day from overtime duty, working 12 to 16 hours at concerts.

But, said a veteran officer, "it's a double-edged sword. There are days when you don't mind it. There are days when you'd rather be doing things with your family."

Said another: "Time off from this job is just as important as time here."

This officer, who said he has made $50 an hour in overtime working at Susquehanna, said sending 99 officers to a July 28 Jason Aldean concert, with batches of officers starting about 7 a.m. for the 7:30 p.m. event, was "irresponsible management."

One of the officers familiar with Susquehanna's requests said it had asked for 51 officers for the Aldean show.

Lynch didn't respond to calls to confirm the numbers requested by Susquehanna, but said in a recent interview that having dozens of officers posted hours before a show "sets the tone" that rowdiness will not be tolerated.

That's unusual, others in law enforcement say.

"I don't see why they have to be there any earlier than one hour before the first expected guest," said Darren Sullivan, a security consultant with New York-based Deft Security Consultants, which has advised clients such as the Sun National Bank Center in Trenton.

Atlantic City's Mazur said he had never heard of a 12-hour head start, as at the Aldean concert.

"I have not seen anything that resembled that," he said. Even for large events, Atlantic City police deploy officers just a couple of hours ahead of time, he said.


Contact Claudia Vargas

at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow/.

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