After a lengthy public comment period at the Magnolia community center Thursday night, the Camden County Freeholders took another step forward in .
The body can now formally apply to the state Civil Service Commission for a one-year exemption from government hiring rules to start reviewing candidates for the new force. The request is expected to be fast-tracked.
The freeholders also formally accepted $60,000 from the New Jersey Division of Local Government Services that will be applied to the start-up costs involved in sifting through the 1500 letters of interest they’ve already received for the unit.
Freeholder Louis Cappelli said that policing consultant Jose Cordero and former New Jersey State Police Captain Ed Fanelle will be involved in the hiring process, but that ultimately Camden City leaders will identify their own selection criteria for the metro police.
“We’re going to do our best to put in place a force that’s going to take back the city,” Cappelli said.
He estimates that the division should be fully in charge by January 2013. Even so, Cappelli said, a new police infrastructure isn't the panacea for a city that has seen 41 murders in less than eight months.
“This is not a cure-all for the city of Camden by any means, but we can’t begin bringing in the other problems in the city until there’s a sense of safety and security for residents and businesses,” Cappelli said.
‘All of you are next’
Opponents of the plan outnumbered its supporters throughout the evening, with many speakers scoring political points with the crowd by invoking the name of Democratic political boss George Norcross as its supposed, ultimate architect.
“You don’t tear down a hospital because you need a new trauma team,” said PR flack Nancy Webster, of Bucks County, PA, who is consulting for the local Fraternal Order of Police.
“They want to make [policing] a politically selected profession instead of a professionally developed one,” she said.
Gary Frazier, a Camden City resident and self-described community activist, accused the freeholders and city government of playing politics with public safety. Frazier said his chief concern is the reorganization will not be subject to a vote, as per a Superior Court decision handed down June 11.
“Law enforcement has a well-developed structure that is going to be blown to bits,” Frazier said. “The outcome of this whole thing is that you want young men to come and put their lives on the line and their families’ lives on the line for a smack-in-the-face salary.”
Frazier also pointed out that in addition to laying off the existing Camden City police force, the move would eliminate other civilian support staff—secretaries, court clerks, maintenance workers.
“This affects not only your families but your families’ families,” Frazier said. “This is a pilot program starting in Camden and whether the other counties know it or not, all of you are next.”
Frazier was removed from the meeting by county sheriffs for shouting down another speaker, Sheila Davis, who identified herself as a stakeholder in the Lanning Square West neighborhood redevelopment project.
Davis said she’d seen criminals in the city “open up with an AK-47 [on children] coming off the bus.”
“You guys think this is a Camden problem? This is everybody’s problem,” Davis said. “We need a change and it’s up to you to help us bring forth a force that is going to protect our children. Please come into the city of Camden and help us.”
‘There’s larger issues’
Whatever the solution that is eventually undertaken, Camden City and county residents both agree that conditions in Camden cannot continue to decline as they have for generations.
Bryan Morton, a 41-year Camden resident, testified that he was threatened at gunpoint earlier this year by a gang member he asked not to ride his dirt bike through the North Camden Little League practice he was organizing at Pyne Point Park.
“That’s what I got for being a stand-up guy,” Morton said.
Morton also chafed at what he described as a paternalistic approach to solving the problems of the city, and said he resented the implication that Camden residents couldn’t see the writing on the wall for themselves.
“When we have 147 open-air drug markets, but we can’t get union representatives to show up to work, something is wrong,” Morton said.
“There’s larger issues. We have a failed education system that needs to be reworked. We have a failed economic system, and we’re not putting people to work.”
Morton, who favors the establishment of the metro division, said he believes that county opposition to the plan is based on the idea that it will raise taxes. Cappelli said that the net impact to the county bottom line will be “zero.”
“There will be no actual impact on Camden County because the police department will be paid for in full by Camden City and any municipality that wants to participate in it,” Cappelli said.
“Right now Camden County does not pay for the Camden City Police Department.”
More importantly, Morton said, a fresh start would mean a chance to rethink policing priorities and extend the jurisdiction of law enforcement officials tracking crime that originates in the city.
“It empowers our police to not have to stop at their borders,” Morton said. “Unless there’s a policy in place to allow police to track Blood gang members setting up networks [in the city], you’re not going to impact crime in the long term.
“From where I sit, we don’t have enough cops,” he said.
“A kid [needs to see] a cop more often than he sees someone buying drugs, using drugs, shooting drugs.”