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August 21, 2014, 6:07 am

Camden residents resist takeover

Laverne Williams, 65, has seen a lot of crime in Camden in her day.

Gunshot wounds, muggings, rapes, burglaries. In Camden, such assaults on the sensibilities of residents are not unusual.

Yet Williams, born and raised in Camden, said last week that the worst crime would be to let the Camden County government take over the Camden City police department as state and county officials have pushed to do in recent weeks.

City and county officials, however, contend that unless control of the department is put in the hands of the county, patrolling the streets of Camden will be too expensive and crime and violence will continue to increase.

“Camden has been named the most dangerous city in the nation year after year,” said Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. in explaining the necessity for the takeover. “The status quo can no longer be tolerated.”

The bulk of Camden’s budget, in this predominantly Black and Hispanic 9-square-mile city of 80,000, is designated for police and public safety. Each year, the price tag on those items continues to swell, even after a state takeover of the city. And each year, Camden’s annual deficit has grown as well.

According to Cappelli, the new policing system would be a regional plan that would begin primarily by policing Camden, and would expand to other county municipalities on a voluntary basis. Similar regional plans have been implemented in other states, such as Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.

He said 30 years ago Camden County’s 911 went to a regional system and most municipalities have since joined.

But the battle over whether to convert to such a system continues to be waged, with residents such as Williams viewing the move as a political maneuver that will bring in more outsiders to fill Camden jobs.

Several weeks ago, citizens such as Eulisis Delgado, Vance Bowman, Larry Gilliams, Mary Cortes and Robert Davis — known as the Camden Five — tried to “Save the Camden Police Department” by attempting to use a petition drive to put an ordinance in place to block a county takeover.

The drive aimed to prohibit the disbanding of the city police department for a county-wide police department.

The Camden Five managed to obtain close to 5,000 signatures in a first failed drive, but the petition list was thrown out on a technicality.

The same group came back within three days, managing to obtain 2,800 signatures, with enough clout to get an ordinance on the Council agenda for May 8.

But that ordinance was withdrawn by Council after a last minute drive by Mayor Dana Redd and City Council President Frank Moran to block the petition drive through a temporary restraining order obtained through the Camden County Superior Court, which set a hearing date of June 11 for the issue to be discussed.

In the June 11 hearing, the courts will decide whether to fully block the ordinance, or schedule a referendum on July 11 to let voters decide up or down on the issue of the police takeover.

Williams, a longtime activist, told City Council last week that the worst crime would have been to “negate the will of the people,” take the city’s police department away from the residents, and put the department under the operation of the county.

“We’re losing our police department,” Williams said during Camden’s Council meeting last week. “For what? It’s the politicians. I’m sick and tired of it.”

Williams was referring to the fact that Mayor Redd and Councilman Moran have sided with the county in its bid to take over the city police.

Redd and Moran have said they are aligned with county and New Jersey Governor. Chris Christie in what they say is a bid to help “streamline” government to make it more efficient and save costs.

Those opposed, like FOP president John Williamson, say the reorganization and takeover of the Camden police department is nothing more than “union-busting” and that it would be bad for the public because experienced officers would be replaced with inexperienced ones on the streets.

The plan would disband the current department and call back potentially 49 percent of the current force. Hiring less than half of the original force would avoid the provisions of an expired contract, county officials said.

The effort to take over Camden’s police department began after police unions and the city failed to agree on negotiations and compromises in this impoverished city, which depends on the state to fill 70 percent of its budget.

The impasse contributed to the layoff of 168 officers — nearly half the department — in January of 2011. Some were rehired, but 80 to 90 officers have left the force for retirement and other reasons.

The plan would begin as a metro division that would police only Camden, thereby raising the number of officers on the street from the current 280 to around 400.

Camden regularly ranks among the nation’s highest-crime cities.

The plan, which has been under study for several months, could reduce costs while keeping salaries at current levels and making the department more effective.

Under an agreement with the state announced last August, the county has until Sept. 30 to submit a plan to the state Department of Community Affairs for reorganization.

Some officials say crime may be edging up as a result of layoffs already in place.

Camden County prosecutor Warren W. Faulk, in previous published reports, has said it is hard to pinpoint a cause and effect.

“We can’t make a direct connection between the layoffs and that increase,” Faulk said, “but those assaults give you the impression they feel emboldened that there is not a police officer around the corner, or within earshot.”

The layoffs of nearly half the department in Camden took place at a time when some said residents were beginning to feel safer. In the last two years, Camden recorded fewer than 40 murders, significantly less than the 54 murders of 2008, when the city was ranked the most dangerous in America, according to a widely quoted survey.

Then a $14 million deficit in the Police Department’s budget, combined with failed union negotiations, led to the layoffs, which left Camden with 204 police officers, its smallest department since 1949.

Forced to restructure the department after the layoffs, Chief Thomson demoted many of his senior officers to patrol duty. As other cities reckon with budget deficits and mounting pension costs, he says he believes his counterparts in other cities will find themselves working under the same constraints as he now does.

Local NAACP head Kelly Francis and former councilman Ali Sloan El, two of those spearheading the drive, argue that the move is merely an effort to tighten county machine control over the city.

“It’s all about power and control,” said Francis.

The police department has been under state control. Nonetheless, problems in the department have persisted.

According to Francis, “There are no figures [for the takeover]. No plans. The only plan is that they have to lay off 51 percent of the current officers to negate control of the union. It’s union busting. That way the contract will be null and void.”

John Williamson, president of Camden’s Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s largest police union, said no one on the current force has less than 12 years of experience.

“You’re going to take 12 years of experience in dealing with what we deal with and totally eliminate it to bring a new police force in,” Williamson said. “To me that’s turning Camden into an occupied territory.”

According to Francis, “The other 36 municipalities want no part of it.”

Though officials could not be reached before press time, officials in those other municipalities, according to recent reports, fear they will be left holding the bag in Camden, paying to police Camden while the number of officers patrolling their towns would shrink. County officials deny that would happen.