By Jonathan Lai
Next week will mark a sea change for policing in Camden, as a new Camden County-run force will swear in its first major batch of officers. They will have to be problem-solvers from the day they start patrolling the city, officials said Wednesday.
The newly minted county officers, who are to replace those in the current Camden Police Department, will begin patrols after two weeks of in-service training, largely in the classroom. The first eight weeks of field training will include a twist on traditional methods, officials said.
"Each of the new officers will be completing a problem-solving project, where they identify a public-safety problem in the neighborhood that they're working on," said Michael Lynch, who was deputy chief of the city force before becoming assistant chief of the new county force.
Officers then will recommended solutions, Lynch said.
Lynch detailed the training approach after job offers were made this week to 265 applicants, including 145 current Camden City officers.
The approach emerged from community feedback, Lynch said, to make sure the new force works alongside residents. Applicants were screened in part on their ability to do that sort of policing, he said.
"They can look at a community and identify real problems that exist, public safety issues, and . . . come up with solutions to their superior officers," Lynch said.
Offers were also made this week to 120 other applicants, county spokesman Dan Keashen said. The offers are conditional on the candidates' passing a vetting process.
By Tuesday, 140 of the Camden applicants had accepted the offer and the rest had declined it. Of the other set of applicants, 97 had accepted and 14 had turned it down.
The Camden County Board of Freeholders, which is responsible for personnel issues, is expected to approve the new hires at a vote Thursday.
The planned force has drawn opposition from the current city police unions, which see the move as a union-busting tactic and have sued.
Camden's current force received layoff notices early this year. The county had offered to consider hiring all of the city officers if they agreed to new terms, but the officers voted to reject the proposal in part because it did not include an ironclad promise to hire all of them.
So far, no suburban communities have agreed to join the county-run force. The city will be patrolled by the Metro Division of the new department.
"There's absolutely no way you can get to know the community in eight weeks," John Williamson, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge representing the current Camden officers, said Wednesday.
"I'm not going to necessarily say anything to knock the concept of having the trainees try to come up with their own assessment of what they believe is wrong. I would just question the length and intensity of the training," he said.
When he went through field training and was taught to conduct it, more than a decade ago, Williamson said, the training lasted 90 days.
Fifteen officers were hired earlier by the county force, including Lynch and two lieutenants, initially to vet the rank-and-file applicants.
This week's batch is the first major wave of hires and a step toward filling out the department, which is to have 401 officers when fully staffed.
"On April 30, we will have somewhere between 250 and 290 officers," said Louis Cappelli Jr., freeholder director. "We will then ramp up to 401 by the end of the year."
Hiring will probably continue in batches, Lynch said, in part because it makes the logistics of training easier. The city force currently has about 230 officers, a number that has dwindled dramatically in recent years. There were nearly 400 officers as recently as June 2010.
The transition from city to county will take place next month, with services changing hands throughout the month. In the interim, officers of the new county-run force will jointly patrol the city with those from the current city force who are not hired on to the new department, Keashen said.
Officials do not foresee any tension from this arrangement, Keashen said, citing the officers' professionalism.
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