Headlines across the country scream the worst—but then, that’s to be expected when one of the most dangerous cities in America decides to lay off its entire police force.
The recently announced plan to reshape the Camden City police force within the metro arm of a county-wide law enforcement division represents the collision of several intensifying concerns.
- The municipal budget process that links state aid to a fewer than 2 percent annual cost increase.
- The escalating murder rate of the city, which is approaching a record figure with more than a quarter-year to go.
- The spillover effect of violent crime into inner-ring suburban towns that are facing the same budget cap pressures in a down economy.
There are no other county-wide departments in the state of New Jersey, and there is no bigger challenge facing what will be its first.
‘They have no place else to go but here’
Joseph T. Abbate, Chief of the Oaklyn Police department, said he’s against the idea of a metro police force, and couldn’t even begin to speculate about the adverse effects of dissolving the Camden City police department on those towns bordering the city.
“They have drugs, they have gangs that have no place else to go but out here,” Abbate said. “There’s gang leaders and drug leaders that don’t even live in the city any more.
"They move out here around us, and they go to work like you and I would go to work, and then they come home where it’s peaceful and they can be sort of separate from the problem.”
Abbate said he disagrees with the policing plan for Camden, and not just because dispatching officers from call to call does not afford them the time to address systemic issues or build relationships with neighborhood leaders. Without a crackdown on ordinance violations for blight issues like trash, high weeds, and junked vehicles, the community itself crumbles, he said.
“They need to tear down those drug houses, those dilapidated eyesores, the guys with four junked vehicles on their property,” Abbate said.
“Changing this police force is not the one thing that’s going to make a difference. They need to do four, five, maybe ten different things all at the same time to try to fix Camden.
“We wish them the best, we hope it works, but laying off dedicated officers and cutting their salaries is nothing but union-busting,” he said.
‘Policing they haven’t seen in decades’
Freeholder Louis Cappelli, a lifelong Collingswood resident, agrees with Abbate that “the biggest crime problem Collingswood has always had is a spillover of crime from Camden City.
“The last year we’ve had home invasions in Cherry Hill, Gloucester Township, and it’s gang-related because gang members live in the suburbs,” Cappelli said. “What’s good for Camden City is good for Camden County.”
Without changes, Cappelli said, Camden City simply cannot afford to maintain its current collective bargaining agreement.
“After decades of negotiation with many mayors, not including Mayor Redd, Camden has given the city away to the FOP,” Cappelli said.
Under a metro police force, he said, “Camden will have police officers walking the beat, riding bicycles; policing they haven’t seen in decades,” because the lowered cost of a new contract will afford “more efficient work rules.”
“I truly believe that the county model will be the model of New Jersey,” Cappelli said. “We have 37 municipalities and 35 police chiefs in Camden County. The cost of providing 35 chiefs and the accompanying captains and lieutenants is excessive.”
But Camden F.O.P. president John Williamson said that every critical concession the union made in its latest negotiations was brushed off as insufficient.
At a rally Saturday, Williamson said the demands to which the Camden City police agreed included eliminating the daytime shift differential (a hazard-pay increase typically given to officers working overnight shifts); eliminating longevity (changing and expanding the pay scale so it would take longer for an officer to max out his salary and pension), and increasing the amount officers contribute to their benefit copays.
None of it mattered at the table, he said, and the same tactics are likely to be employed elsewhere, too.
“The same way they’re trying to force the city of Camden into this, they will try to force other [communities] into this,” Williamson said. “If [the metro division will be] compartmentalized to Camden, why is its headquarters going to be in Blackwood?”
Jose Cordero, a police consultant who is one of the architects of the new metro police division, says that the concessions made by the Camden police department wouldn’t have been enough in the final estimation.
“Within the constraints of the existing rules and regulations and contracts, the challenges remain that we couldn’t make all the changes that were needed,” Cordero said.
Starting over “affords an opportunity to create an organization that is reflective of today’s economic realities and policing efforts in Camden,” he said.
Cordero said that the issues at work in the labor negotiations are tied less to wage scales and more to “the flexibility to provide the citizens of Camden with the services they need and the results they want.”
“When we cannot assign more officers to a gang or drug unit to combat increasing violence, there’s a cost,” Cordero said. “A chief shouldn’t have to make a decision to fight crime based on raising costs.
"The organizational design has to be reflective of the public safety reality,” he said.
A new policing infrastructure would allow the county “to keep our fingers on the pulse of what Camden residents want to see change,” Cordero said, facilitating greater communication and intelligence-sharing with neighboring police forces in a more cooperative environment.
“It really is an opportunity to look at the problems and design,” he said.
'We were set up to fail'
Retired Patrolman Greg Young, a 19-year veteran of the Camden Police Department, said, however, that the current policing strategy in Camden City was also designed by Cordero.
“The plan currently in place right now came from Cordero,” Young said. It was intended “to get your numbers up by stopping taking reports.”
Young and retired Patrolmen Jose Morales and Efran Cortez, who served 19 and 18 years on the Camden P.D., respectively, say they believe the strategies that Cordero implemented years ago were designed to fail so that the union could more easily be broken.
“Back in 2009 we had patrol, supplemental, K-9, we even had a couple horses,” Cortez said. “All that was stopped because it was working.”
The focus on case numbers prevented police from making their own decisions about where to patrol and at what time, he said, giving full control of resource deployment to an "eye in the sky" overseer.
“You pull a car over, that’s a case number,” Cortez said. “You run all four people in the car, each one’s a case number,” he said. “You go to lunch, take a piss, there’s a case number.”
The three described a mission-control-led, micromanaging environment in which they were ordered to engage people for minor infractions like loitering and smoking, and ignore calls for aid if it meant abandoning their assigned posts, even if nothing was happening there.
“How else can you justify 70 officers working a concert [at the Susquehanna Bank Center]?” Morales asked. “That leaves maybe 12 offices to patrol the city."
“If the department has a contract with you, that has more importance than the people who live here?” Cortez said.