Camden sent extra officers to waterfront events, picked up tab

Posted: January 17, 2014

CAMDEN The city's former police department sent more officers than requested to patrol more than 20 waterfront concerts in 2012, with the city picking up the extra cost, internal billing and scheduling documents show.

Some of the information was released following a judge's ruling last month that it be made public; other related records were obtained by The Inquirer.

More than a year after denying Councilman Brian Coleman's request for the information, Camden turned the first of the documents over last week - an overtime report from the July 28, 2012, concert by the country singer Jason Aldean.

The report shows 94 officers were deployed, but only 51 had been requested and were paid for by the Susquehanna Bank Center. The July 28 concert cost the department $77,580 in overtime, of which the center covered $32,879.

"The question becomes, who authorized that overtime and why?" asked Coleman. "Was it the chief? Was it the supervisor? Who had the power to do that? And if that is the case, how long have these practices been going on?"

The information dates to 2012, before the city force was disbanded and a new Camden County Metro Division, announced in August 2012, took over in an effort, officials said, to improve service and save money, including sky-high overtime.

Critics alleged that the budget, specifically overtime, had been intentionally inflated in a union-busting move.

Police say higher staffing numbers were needed for the concerts, which were attended by upward of 25,000 people.

They pointed to a June 2012 WXTU concert at which officers were assaulted, and a Jimmy Buffett concert in September where a man died following a fight after the show.

"In our situation, it's imperative we staff enough to be prepared to not only proactively control and shape outcome, but also be prepared when there's an emergent situation," Camden County Assistant Chief Michael Lynch, who was deputy chief of the old force, said this week. "That's where you start to see the discrepancy."

City spokesman Robert Corrales said the city and the center agree upon the number of officers the center will pay for, "but at the end of the day, if the chief felt he needed to bring more officers on, for whatever reason, that's his decision." He noted that the department did not go over its budget in 2012.

Corrales said there were no attempts to renegotiate for more money to cover the additional officers because each concert was unique and contracts were set annually.

Live Nation, the management company for Susquehanna, did not respond to requests for comment.

Information from the Aldean concert shows that 64 of the 94 officers who actually were deployed (out of 99 scheduled) worked at least 171/2 hours for the show, which began at 7 p.m. Some officers started as early as 7 a.m.

Parking lots at the center don't open until 4 p.m., but Lynch said rowdy concertgoers set up tailgates hours ahead of time and migrate to surrounding neighborhoods.

Robert Babnew, an officer with the old department for 19 years until he was laid off in April 2013, worked 171/2 hours that day and earned $708.42, according to a tally released by the city.

"You had a ton of us sitting in an empty parking lot with a gate that's locked at 7 a.m., literally doing nothing," he said. "You had crime going through the roof, and the city is paying to police a private venue." The city had a record 67 homicides in 2012.

Babnew obtained the additional billing and scheduling documents through a law enforcement source. They show that for many 2012 summer concerts, the number of officers allotted - or scheduled to work - was at least double what was requested and in one case six times as many.

At an Aug. 12 concert by Demi Lovato, the Susquehanna center was billed for eight officers at a total cost of $3,332 but the department allotted 53 officers.

The force scheduled 68 more officers than requested for a Brad Paisley concert June 30, 2012.

The exact overtime cost to the city was not available, and calculations would be an estimation, since the documents show who was scheduled to work, not the final number deployed.

The department spent $3.1 million in overtime in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, but $1.7 million in the first 10 weeks of the following fiscal year, the period in question.

Kelly Francis, president of the Camden County chapter of the NAACP, who led the charge to get the documents, said the information "indicates that they inflated in 2012 the department's budget and then used that excessive cost figure to abolish the police department."

"These numbers were not normal, by no means," he said.

Officials have denied those accusations, and pointed to layoffs and other staffing problems the force was experiencing. Most of the officers assigned to the concerts were not scheduled to work those days, thus the overtime and long hours, Lynch said.

"You were dealing with a force that was depleted, staffing issues, sick leave, all kinds of variables that went into creating this perfect storm," Lynch said.

He points to lower crime rates and fewer homicides under the new county force, currently numbering 332 officers. He said the county Sheriff's Department now shares the responsibility of policing concerts.

In his State of the State address Tuesday, Gov. Christie pointed to Camden as a model for regionalizing police departments.

The city initially denied both Coleman's and Francis' requests for the information, saying it would reveal confidential direct deployment numbers.

That's when the NAACP partnered with John Paff, chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project, to sue.

A judge ruled against the city in December, giving it 24 days to appeal or turn over the documents, which it did Friday.

For Paff, his interest in the case had nothing to do with the politics of Camden policing, he said, but the illegality of blocking access to public documents: "It's overtime records. This is the bread and butter of government."

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.

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