Rank-and-file members of the Camden City Fraternal Order of Police voted down a proposal from the Camden County Freeholders to join the Camden County Metro Police Division or forfeit their years of service on the job.
The offer failed to pass by a measure of 142-62 on Thursday, with 204 of 234 members voting.
That final tally means that the police union in the most dangerous city in America will try its luck challenging the labor reorganization in the court system, as an April 30 deadline to dissolve the city force in favor of a countywide Metro Division looms.
The deal on the table Thursday would have created a special exception allowing for as much as 100 percent of the current department to be hired by the Metro Division while retaining their years of service accrued in the city.
Now, the county says, because of federal labor laws, the greatest number of currently employed Camden City officers that can join the special pilot program is 40 percent of the current force.
'Moving forward with or without the FOP'
Just 30 minutes after the results of the vote were known, a small gathering of Camden City officials, including Mayor Dana Redd and Police Chief Scott Thomson, participated in a press conference led by Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. in city council chambers.
“I’m extremely disappointed,” Thomson said. “What we will experience now is a revisiting of January 18, 2011, when we walked 168 officers off the job.”
Those assembled continued to assert that the Metro Division is a foregone conclusion that “unfortunately [is] only going to happen with 49 percent of our department,” Thomson said.
“This city is moving forward with or without the FOP,” Cappelli said, condemning the union for stalling and delaying the vote on the contract offer as proposed. When asked whether there was any chance that the two sides could sit down at the table to commence normal contract negotiations, Cappelli said “absolutely not.”
Cappelli further said that 150 current Camden City officers have applied to the new division, “and the line is out the door,” even as he admitted the possibility that the new force could be trained for a month by officers about to be laid off.
'They're using the Willie Lynch syndrome'
Both Redd and Cappelli accused Camden City FOP. President John Williamson of withholding information from his membership about the terms of the agreement offered by the Camden County Freeholders.
The county government released a barrage of press notices Thursday in the lead-up to the vote, alleging that Williamson was denying members of his own union the right to participate in the vote even as he signed on to an overtime lawsuit against the city for unpaid hours during his tenure as union president.
Cappelli even claimed at one point that Williamson was expected to deliver the support of the police union for the plan in exchange for an appointment on the new force.
“I was told specifically if we guaranteed him a job, the vote would be yes,” Cappelli said.
Later, at the FOP Lodge, Williamson laughed off both claims.
“I’ve never had that conversation with Lou Cappelli,” Williamson said. “I think he’s grasping at straws.”
“The Superintendent of Elections was sitting right there,” he said, gesturing to a table where he’d spent the morning checking in officers who voted on county-supplied electronic voting machines at the hall.
Williamson didn’t challenge Cappelli’s claim, however, that a number of current Camden City officers had submitted applications to the County Metro Division. Neither did he think that doing so represented a betrayal of fighting for the current union.
“I understand the fact that the county and the city put the officers’ backs up against the wall and some officers felt they had to put in applications,” Williamson said.
“They’re using the Willie Lynch syndrome,” he said. “A lot of tensions are running high. They’ve created an atmosphere where they’ve created some of the most atrocious working conditions in the country.”
Still 'the most dangerous city in America'
Williamson said that the county’s claim that “more boots on the ground” will solve the crime problems of the city——is illogical.
“In 2007, we were the Number 5 most dangerous city [in America],” he said. “For the last five years we have ranked Number 1 or Number 2. In 2008, we had over 350 officers. In 2010, we had 393 officers.
“If you couldn’t deploy officers right [then], what makes people think you’re going to be able to recapture what you lost during the layoffs?” Williamson said. “They said crime wouldn’t increase and public safety wouldn’t suffer.”
He also pointed out that even if the County has more than 1,000 qualified applicants for the 401 uniformed officer positions the Metro Division plans to hire, that’s no guarantee that all would be suitable candidates for the jobs.
“When we hired 40 officers in 2010, I was briefly assigned to the background [checking] unit,” Williamson said. “We had 2,500 applicants to hire 40 people. A lot of people do not meet the criteria for whatever reason.
"There’s a lot of things that wash people out of the process.”