Public Safety & Justice

High-Crime Camden's Plan to Replace Police Dept. Approved

Camden's plan to lay off all of its uniformed police officers has been approved by the New Jersey Civil Service Commission, setting the stage for replacing the Police Department with a new county-run force.
by | January 3, 2013

Camden's plan to lay off all of its uniformed police officers has been approved by the New Jersey Civil Service Commission, setting the stage for replacing the Police Department with a new county-run force.

Mayor Dana L. Redd also announced Wednesday that the layoffs of about 270 officers are now tentatively set for April 30.

"We cannot sit back and allow our children and families to experience another 2012. We have an opportunity to improve public safety by bringing back community policing and adding more law enforcement officers to patrol our neighborhoods and business corridors," Redd said in a statement.

The ruling by the commission, which oversees the hiring of government workers in New Jersey, is a critical step in creating the new force, which officials say will increase the number of police in Camden to about 400 officers -- at roughly the $60 million cost of the current department -- by reducing compensation packages.

Camden, routinely ranked as one of the country's most violent cities, recorded 67 homicides last year, a record for the former manufacturing center.

John Williamson, president of the rank-and-file Camden police officers' union, said he was notified of the ruling Monday and planned to file an appeal with the state appellate court shortly.

"We just came off a record homicide year. You're talking about laying off the entire Police Department without knowing how many are going to return," he said. "It's in the lawyers' hands now."

The state NAACP, which has criticized the plan to replace the city's police force as "anti-minority," will join the police union in the appeal, Williamson said.

One final step potentially holding up Camden County's takeover of the city Police Department is the question of funding.

County officials have been in negotiations with Gov. Christie for between $5.0 million and $6.5 million in start-up money and a guarantee that county taxpayers would not be left to cover the cost of the new force should state aid to Camden -- which comprises more than 70 percent of the city's budget -- be cut.

Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said Wednesday that an agreement was "close" and that once it is completed, the county will begin hiring officers immediately to begin an eight-week on-the-job training course.

"By next month, the residents will begin seeing the officers on the street. They'll be walking the beats and getting to know the neighborhoods," Cappelli said.

The two police forces will coexist until the new department is determined to be functioning safely, Cappelli said. County and city officials have set themselves the goal of April 30 to close down the existing city department.

"It is important that our residents understand that the city will always maintain a police presence and will continue to patrol our neighborhoods and business corridors during this transition," Redd said.

The decision to close down one of New Jersey's largest police departments has met with criticism from the officers' unions, who call it a move against organized labor.

While small-town forces in the state have been merged into larger departments in the past, the scale of the Camden takeover is unique, said Mitchell C. Sklar, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.

So far, close to 900 people have signed up for background checks to join the new force, including around 100 current Camden police officers, according to Cappelli.

The demand for police hires is rising again in New Jersey after an era of widespread layoffs, Sklar said.

"We have seen a small uptick in hiring," he said. "It's not like it was five years ago, but it's getting better."

If the Camden mass layoff is to take place April 30, notices must be issued by March 15, according to the Civil Service Commission.

(c)2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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