Wrenching parting of ways for Camden officers

Camden County Police Officer Denise Bacchues explains the ins and outs of patrolling to trainees. She was one of the officers to transition.
Camden County Police Officer Denise Bacchues explains the ins and outs of patrolling to trainees. She was one of the officers to transition. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 01, 2013

Denise Bacchues grew up in Camden. So did Mitzi Collins. They both graduated from the same police academy class 16 years ago.

Bacchues, 42, a self-styled mother-hen type, said she became a Camden City officer because she wanted to work with youths.

Collins, 54, said she was inspired as a child by a kind officer in North Camden. "He was like my hero," she said.

The 141-year-old city police force that the women have spent their entire careers serving will no longer exist after Tuesday, paving the way for a Camden County-run force whose metro division is to patrol the city. And the two officers who started their careers together have chosen different paths.

Bacchues is one of nearly 100 city officers who applied for and have been hired onto the new force.

Collins, citing concerns about the leadership of the new force, didn't apply. She was among scores of city officers who turned in their guns and equipment last week and have been laid off.

"It was just a hard day, a really hard day," said Collins, who has a 30-year-old son and also raised two foster children. "I just try to look on the bright side, but right now there is no bright side. I thought I would retire as a Camden police officer."

Bacchues, a field training officer on the county force, said it was gut-wrenching to see fellow officers turn in their badges.

"Emotionally, it was almost like a death, like a mourning," she said Monday as she walked the streets of Fairview Village training a batch of new officers.

For Bacchues, who chose to work in Camden over Cherry Hill 16 years ago because she wanted "to be where my people are," the new force is an opportunity to continue working in her city.

"I haven't been able to pass that torch to somebody else, to take care of and nurture the kids," said Bacchues, who now lives in Sicklerville. "Until I'm able to pass that torch on, I still need to be here." Her mother lives in Fairview Village.

On Monday, she watched as her group of five new hires knocked on doors in Fairview, introducing themselves and trying to learn about community issues.

She guided the officers, such as one who knocked on a door with a light knock.

"Was that a police knock or was that a hello knock?" she said.

Bacchues spent 11 years as a school resource officer. Her unit gave children rides home and fed them, she said.

"You tend to be a nurturer," she said. "What they call a mother hen."

She acknowledged that she was hesitant about joining the new force because of "fear of the unknown."

"I'm glad I crossed over," she said.

City Police Chief Scott Thomson, who will lead the metro division, is to be sworn in at a ceremony Wednesday.

The county department became official March 17, when the county freeholders voted to establish it.

County and city officials argued for the new force in part because they said it allowed them to shed generous police contracts and eliminate extras like shift differentials that would save $20 million.

The savings, officials say, would allow them to field a larger, 400-member force, and hire more than 100 civilian aides.

It is still undetermined how much the city will have to pay for the services of the county force as well as what kind of long-term commitment the state will make so that Camden can afford to pay.

For the fiscal year ending in June, the state provided $102 million in aid to Camden, nearly 70 percent of the city's budget.

Dan Keashen, a county spokesman, said a shared services agreement and funding formula were close to being finalized.

The new force has emerged despite two years of fierce resistance from the rank-and-file police union and some residents, who have termed the plan a mistake and a union-busting move.

Some residents are also concerned that new officers won't be familiar with urban policing.

Collins, now a South Camden resident, said that as she and other officers turned in their equipment last week, they still felt united by their mission:

"We believed what we were doing was right."


Contact Darran Simon at 856-779-3829 or dsimon@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @darransimon.

 

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