Waving signs that read “WE DEMAND RESPECT FOR CAMDEN” and “PUBLIC SERVANTS NOT PUBLIC SLAVES,” some 75 picketers gathered outside the Camden County Boathouse Tuesday evening to protest a closed-door meeting of several local mayors on the subject of .
Chanting “Sell-out” as each successive attendee arrived, the crowd cheered when a passing car or truck honked in support, and heckled the building through bullhorns for nearly two solid hours. Among those coordinating the opposition were Camden City residents, police and firefighters from throughout the county, and their families.
To a person, they expressed nearly the same concerns—that details of the reorganization plan were a secret; that the whole affair was a back-door union-busting tactic; and that it was merely a first step designed to pave the way for other local police forces to be dissolved in favor of a countywide system.
‘It starts in Camden City and spreads outward’
John Gregor, vice-president of the Camden County Fraternal Order of Police (F.O.P.) Lodge 76, said that without some explanation of the mechanics of the reorganization, officers and their families were anxiously drawing their own conclusions.
“The only thing we can base this on is the disbanding of the Woodlynne police department five or six years ago,” Gregor said.
When that happened, he said, policing duties for the Woodlynne borough were subcontracted out to Collingswood for a few years. Then, when Woodlynne reformed its own police force in 2010, he said, officers there were re-hired more cheaply because there was no union contract in place.
“The concern is that it starts in Camden City and spreads outward,” Gregor said.
Despite Gregor said such guarantees are meaningless.
“Where’s his plan to prove it?” Gregor said.
He theorized that the true cost of county policing would reveal itself years later in the form of higher taxes and the withdrawal of state financial aid for towns that don’t join the county force.
“It costs every household in Audubon $600 for its own police department,” Gregor said, “but in two years they’ll be paying outrageous taxes to pay for Camden City.”
‘We’ve asked to be a part of the solution’
Joseph Eisenhardt, chief of the Barrington Police Department and third vice-president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, led a contingent of his fellow chiefs to the door of the meeting, but was turned aside. He said he hadn’t expected anything different.
A year ago, when the initial rumblings of the metro division plan were first felt, the association withdrew from the process, he said, snubbed by an offer of one seat on its planning board when the group had asked for four. These are the kinds of broad political power plays by which the process has been defined.
Without the expertise of local senior police leadership, Eisenhardt said, any newly formed division is doomed to failure.
“I’ll have 31 years on the job [as Barrington chief] at the end of this month,” Eisenhardt said. “The last mayor I worked for was 12 when I took this job. If they have a question about the police department, they talk to me.”
Eisenhardt pointed out that he and a number of the chiefs that were gathered with him had accrued enough years to simply leave the discussion to the politicians, if they so chose. They didn’t, he said, because they believe it would be irresponsible to do so.
“The bulk of us here have our time in,” Eisenhardt said. “We could retire and we haven’t.
“We’ve asked to be a part of the solution,” he said.
‘We do it ourselves or somebody does it for us’
Inside the closed-door meeting, Collingswood Mayor James Maley said there wasn’t any greatly detailed discussion about the reorganization, its policing priorities, or tactical deployments. In fact, he said, much of what appeared on the docket had already been discussed publicly.
Maley described the meeting as mostly “informational” for mayors of the inner-ring suburbs; its function was to outline a transitional timetable for the Camden P.D. to the new, countywide metro division.
Maley said that although he understood the concerns of protestors outside, he objected to the notion that any public demonstration would prevent the metro division from being established.
“This is a done deal,” he said. “It’s time to work out how we do this transition in a way that keeps as many current Camden City officers employed as possible.
“It’s time to stop the fight,” he said.
Maley said that with the impending passage of state Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s (D-3) shared services bill this fall, communities statewide will be led to embrace initiatives like regionalized policing on their own “or it’s going to be forced on us.”
Better then, he said, for communities to handle these things on their own terms while they still can.
“We do it ourselves or somebody else does it for us,” Maley said. “If we do nothing, these changes are coming. They’re being ordered from the state.”
Although Maley added that “there’s nothing in the foreseeable future” to suggest that Collingswood is headed towards dissolving its own police department and joining up with a countywide force, he wouldn’t rule out such a move within the next 15 to 20 years.
“There’s a whole bunch of towns locally that have been talking for a few months now,” he said, but “it’s a slow, long process; there’s a lot of issues.”
Maley also confirmed that the only police chief present at the meeting was Richard Sarlo of Collingswood. Although others had been invited to attend along with their mayors, the executive board of the police chiefs association “had decided months ago to not participate in the process,” he said, “and that’s a shame.”
Maley also said that the brinksmanship tactics employed in the fight are fueling anxieties on both sides. There’s no way of knowing how many of the existing Camden City police officers could be re-hired for the metro division, ironically enough, because of a catch-22 union-busting rule.
“My understanding is that there’s a federal law that won’t allow the county department to hire more than 50 percent of the existing officers unless you strike a deal with the union,” Maley said.
Yet the union won’t negotiate with the county because it disagrees with the plan in principle—so no deal can yet be struck to carry over more jobs from the current union into the new department.
Along the same lines, Maley says, calls from protestors to put the county policing initiative to a public referendum will go unanswered because the elected officials believe, in principle, that the people already have had their say in voting them into office.
“There are hard decisions that have to be made and hard decisions are typically not unanimous,” he said.