Camden County freeholders have taken their latest case for the Camden County Metro Division public, releasing the terms of an offer that seeks to bring the current Camden City police officers on board by Jan. 31.
That's the deadline the county has given the Camden City Fraternal Order of Police. to accept its latest offer—or face the potential loss of career longevity and a hiring process capped (by labor laws) at a maximum of 49 percent of its current staff.
To emphasize the point, the county government also announced last week the transfer from the Camden City P.D. of the first three members of the Metro P.D.—Deputy Chief Michael Lynch, Sgt. Joe Williams, and Det. Gabriel Camacho—as well as $5.5 million in startup dollars from the state.
"If you’re given the option of having a job with a very good salary, good health benefits, and a retirement plan, or not having a job, I think the choice is clear: You take your job," Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli told Collingswood Patch.
According to a statement issued by the county freeholders Jan. 15, the proposal on the table allows the new department to unionize "immediately upon arrival," although the Metro Division will be a pilot program "governed by civil service" until October 2013.
(To read the entire document, which includes a proposed officer pay scale chart, click on the .PDF above.)
War of words
The freeholders have argued that the reorganization is necessary to change the culture of a police department that has grown unsustainably expensive and done too little to halt the violence in a city consistently dubbed one of the most dangerous in the country.
The union has maintained that the formation of the Camden County Metro division is merely designed to undercut organized labor agreements with the ultimate design of leveraging other municipal departments to buy in to a larger, countywide police force down the road.
Both sides have trotted out civic leaders and community members who argue alternately that either residents of the city deserve a referendum on the move or that things are so dire in the city that radical change is in order.
With this latest agreement, the county government now seems to hold the hammer in those negotiations.
Backing of the state
In all, $10 million or so is expected to come from the state, Cappelli told Patch, as well as "an agreement that’s being started right now regarding Camden’s payments pursuant to the shared service agreement."
"The difference is we’re curtailing the increase that the city has experienced over the decades and the cost of public safety operations," Cappelli said. "Last year, this cost taxpayers $20 million. We’re not saving $20 million because we’re using that $20 million to staff up the police department."
Those dollars represent the backing of the state government, Cappelli said, and should be taken as a sign that no amount of public pressure will be sufficient to derail the plan. He accused union leadership of misinforming officers on key points, which he says has dragged out the process.
The Camden F.O.P. "[has] been told by their leadership that Gov. Christie is not supporting this effort," Cappelli said. "That is simply not the case. The governor has come up with over $10 million to assist us, so he’s put his money where his mouth is.
"Second, they’ve been misled what the terms would be," he said. "They’re trying to use public pressure to change the minds of the freeholders, but we are committed as a board."
'We've always had concerns about the funding'
Even if the Metro police department is a de facto reality according to Cappelli, that doesn't mean the F.O.P. is easing off its protest strategy in the meantime.
(For example: On the heels of the Cooper Hospital whistleblower settlement announced last week, a group of familiar opponents of the Metro division rebranded itself the "We The People Whistleblowers." With the volunteer help of Whitehorse Communications, a PR firm that has represented F.O.P. interests at various freeholder meetings throughout the process, they organized a press conference and march on Camden City Hall at noon today**.)
John Williamson, president of the Camden City F.O.P., said that his membership reviewed the terms of the latest deal offered to the union, and that "There are still a lot of questions to be answered.
"The only thing that’s specific is a Jan. 31 deadline," Williamson said. "Everything else is not necessarily clearly spelled out, it’s open to interpretation."
Williamson would not comment on what specific issues of the deal were problematic, however, saying that lawyers for the F.O.P. would identify those in a formal response to the offer.
But he did attack the freeholders' claim that the Metro division would be financially self-sustaining with money from Camden City alone.
"We’ve always had concerns about the funding," Williamson said. "We’ve always believed that the city can afford the police department. We’ve always believed that this is an attempt [by the city] to get out of their contractual obligation, and this is the way they’re going to do it, by disbanding the police department."
"The city has not been able to afford to sustain itself for the last 50 years," Williamson said. "We were always willing to renegotiate the contract. We were always willing to make sacrifices."
Funding issues vs. underlying issues
Williamson pointed out that if the problem weren't only financial, the Metro Division would be seeking new leadership along with different policing priorities.
"To wipe out any organization...for the sake of change, and then use the experience that crime is out of hand or that we are being restricted by the [collective bargaining] contract...has nothing to do with the management of personnel and the deployment of personnel," Williamson said.
He argued that in the five years since Scott Thomson has served as chief of police in Camden, the city has been ranked either the most or second-most-dangerous city in the country.
"Prior to that we had been No. 5," Williamson said. "That’s not good, but it’s not No. 1 and No. 2."
The Metro Division would give Thomson "a bigger department and an opportunity to start all over again," he said, which doesn't address the underlying problems of the city.
"You’re talking about the poorest city in the United States in [one of] the richest state[s] of the United States," Williamson said.
"Jobs, youth programs, education, dealing with a lot of the single, unwed mothers in the city—those are all issues in the totality that have to be addressed when you’re talking about the crime issues in the city," he said.
"It’s not just 'beef up the police department and crime in Camden is going to go away.' Where there’s poverty, there’s crime."
Bigger changes within a decade
Cappelli has contended throughout, however, that the Metro Division represents a moral imperative from the county to attack the root of the problem in the city that he called "the crime base for Camden County.
"By attacking the criminals at their base, we expect to see a reduction in crime throughout the county," Cappelli said.
He also argued that by adding more officers to the police force, the Metro Division would free up the resources of the county prosecutor’s office "to conduct more investigations outside of Camden City" and better coordinate efforts "between Chief Thomson and the chiefs and mayors of the inner-ring suburbs in crime prevention efforts."
Cappelli also said that the potential for greater cost efficiencies that can emerge from the structure of something like a countywide police force isn't limited to Camden City. He added that the bigger efficiency-related changes could be coming to South Jersey within a decade, and they wouldn't necessarily be exclusive to emergency services.
"I think it’s pretty simple," Cappelli said. "The biggest complaint in the state of New Jersey is high property taxes. The only way to reduce high property taxes is to reduce the amount of spending, which means reducing the amount of government in the state. You can do that and improve the level of services.
"Eventually," Cappelli said, "towns will do one of two things and either join our police department and become a part of the county police force, or they’ll merge amongst themselves.
"That’s the only way they’ll be able to afford [the cost of policing]," he said.
**Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that the "We the People Whistleblowers" group was organized by Whitehorse Communications. Nancy Webster, president of Whitehorse Communications, said that her firm helped the group issue press releases for the Jan. 28 march on a pro bono basis, but that they are not her clients; however, the Camden City F.O.P. is.