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Tangled Up In Blue

by Jennifer Kelley
Thanks to a police regionalization plan, Camden City crime could soon be the county’s problem—if it isn’t already.

Voorhees Township’s crime problem would not exactly be described as an epidemic. But, with 24.4 crimes per a thousand residents last year—an increase from the year before—there is work to be done in this town of peaceful, tree-lined neighborhoods and bustling business districts. The same can be said for Cherry Hill, where the crime-rate-per-thousand residents had nearly doubled year over year, to 32.1.

Yet, these numbers barely compare to Camden City, which posted a 75.1 crime rate per thousand residents, fully double the 36.8 Camden County average.

That disparity, revealed in stark numbers alone, is a major reason why so many local towns have reacted with alarm to a proposal to regionalize Camden County’s police force. Vaunted as a cost-saving plan that would rein in municipal expenses in the wake of the state aid cuts and 2 percent cap on property tax increases imposed by Gov. Chris Christie, the plan received backing from the state, the county and Camden City this summer. Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr., one of the architects of the proposal, says it is the first step in stemming the city’s “catastrophic” crime problem, and could become a roadmap to police consolidation in New Jersey. “If Camden [County] takes the lead,” Cappelli says, “I absolutely believe it will go statewide.” But in Camden’s suburbs, there have been no takers.

Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt’s response was fairly typical: “Cherry Hill police officers will police Cherry Hill streets—and Cherry Hill streets only. A countywide department may be good for other towns, but I see no reason for the township to entertain an alternative to our current police department and public safety services.”

Voorhees Mayor Mike Mignona agrees. Despite professing that he and other elected leaders “owe a duty to our residents to find ways to operate government more efficiently,” he has opposed joining the countywide force. “Our officers are intimately familiar with our community, allowing them to more effectively serve and protect,” he explains.

Still, Cappelli and other county officials think the practical requirements of policing South Jersey towns will rule the day.

For one thing, Camden City will have its own dedicated Metro Force. For another, Cappelli argues, the cost benefits are obvious: Upon joining the broader force, cash-strapped towns have access to specialized services they may have lost following previous budget cuts, such as a detective bureau, SWAT teams and K9 units.

“Because of this cap, the way New Jersey municipalities police their communities will have to change,” Cappelli argues. “If we keep operating the way we have been, it’s going to result in less and less officers on the street. Anyone who thinks differently has their head in the sand. We’ve got to get past protecting fiefdoms and instead fight crime with a regional front. It may take 20 years to get there,” he adds, “but it’s inevitable.”

While it could be awhile before local towns warm up to the idea of paying for county police rather than their own departments, the proposed Metro unit targeting Camden has been fast-tracked. Officials say a fresh force could be in place there within six months, and, Cappelli explains, the regionalization initiative offers the potential to put twice as many police on the ground for the same price. The savings will be achieved through “restructuring resources,” he says.

In layman’s terms: The county has the ability to hire new officers at a lower rate. The median salary for a rank-and-file Camden cop is $79,656, well below the state median of $90,672. But Mayor Dana Redd contends that the pension and benefits costs bring the per-officer pricetag to $140,000 a year. Camden’s tax base simply cannot support that level of compensation, Cappelli argues.

Clearly, Camden—currently rated the second most dangerous city in America, according to a crime data analysis by CQ Press—is overdue for a change.

With no money to replace retirees, the Camden Police Department (CPD) has lost more than 100 members over the last few years. By the start of 2011 it was down to just 300 officers, who—stretched beyond capacity—struggled to keep a lid on the simmering violence. Then, a bad situation got worse. This January, denied the millions of dollars in additional state aid needed to close a massive budget gap, the city laid off 168 more cops.

Within the first three months after the layoffs, violent crime was up—by 17 percent over the same period in 2010. According to the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, incidences of confrontational robbery were up 60 percent; car thefts increased by 40 percent, shootings by 20 percent and incidents of arson increased by 45 percent.

In April, more than 50 officers were rehired through federal grants and other one-time revenue streams, but another round of layoffs appears inevitable. Furthermore, such cuts affect the city’s entire criminal-justice system. Since the layoffs, the CPD’s crime-scene detectives have been reassigned to patrol, hampering the ability of the Prosecutor’s Office to bring cases to trial and, ultimately, obtain convictions. In addition, some laid-off officers who were set to provide essential testimony against defendants have taken jobs in other states, and many won’t be back for their court dates. In short, an already desperate situation has been made worse.

“These days the cops don’t come unless it’s so bad an ambulance or an undertaker is needed,” says Corinne Powers, a lifelong Camden resident and local restaurant owner.

“We’re losing very basic, necessary services. It’s like the lives of people in Camden don’t count.”

But suburban municipalities aren’t the only ones resisting a regionalized plan: the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) is also digging in its heels in opposition. “It is absolutely ridiculous what they’re doing: eliminating an entire police department to get around contracts,” says New Jersey FOP President Ed Brannigan. “Replacing seasoned officers, working one of the most dangerous beats in the country with outsiders who know nothing about what goes on there, will undoubtedly put people in jeopardy. No one in law enforcement approves of this plan—no one.”

The Camden County Police Chiefs Association and the FOP dropped out of Cappelli’s committee in July, when the discussion on regionalizing police shifted from hypothetical scenario to concrete timeline.

“It’s severely misguided to assume you can just arrest your way out of the problems we have here. It’s not that simple,” says John Williamson, a CPD officer who heads Camden’s FOP. “The focus should be on getting us the resources we need to do our job, not starting over from scratch.” Crime, he adds, is not going to stop for a changing of the guards, “and criminals will absolutely take advantage of the [county force’s] learning curve. That’s a fact.”

Faulk, the county prosecutor, admits that there are unknowns here. “Anything that gets more officers on the street is a good thing,” he muses. “That being said, there are serious concerns about a transition from a city force to a county one. The loss of the institutional knowledge and intelligence we get from Camden police officers would be significant—no doubt about it. This will have to be looked at very carefully.”

To that end, the county has brought in a big name to do the looking: former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney. A nationally recognized figure on public safety whose career has spanned from New York to Miami, Timoney was hired as an independent consultant to analyze the regionalization plan and make recommendations for its implementation. Already, he has made a point of tempering cost-saving expectations. Policing the Camden County region requires “optimal staffing levels,” he explained at a press conference teasing the report he was expected to issue this month. “The goal is to create a county police department that is sustainable going forward,” and that doesn’t necessarily mean it will come at a lesser expense to taxpayers.

As the most heavily taxed property owners in the nation, New Jersey residents know that you can put a price on public safety, and it’s a hefty one.

While suburban county residents may not wish to make Camden City crime their problem, Faulk asserts that what happens there is of regional importance. “Many major players in the drug trade do not rest their heads in the city at night; they live in the surrounding communities,” he says. “Call it a cop thing, but a statement I heard when I first took this job has proved true: All roads lead to Camden. Crime that occurs in the suburbs and even in other nearby counties always has some sort of connection to this city. What happens here truly affects everyone in South Jersey.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 7 (October, 2011).
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