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September 1, 2014, 1:33 am

Camden gambles on firing police

It’s now three years into Camden mayor Dana Redd’s first term. In another year she is slated to stand for re-election.

So far, this quiet unassuming chief executive has taken some of the boldest gambles of any mayor ever to sit behind her desk. Those risks include a controversial plan, which has gained national attention, to disband her own police department and outsource its operation to the county government.

At least one expert has said he has never seen a police change done this way, especially in a city commonly labeled as “the most dangerous” in the nation.

“I don’t know that this has been done before,” Louis Tuthill, a criminal justice professor of Rutgers University said in a recent published report. “I have never heard of it.”

Redd eagerly agreed last week in an interview, but added that radical surgery was necessary in a radically challenged city.

“No, this has never been done before,” said Redd of the change which will effectively fire her entire current department in a city routinely called poorest and most crime ridden in the nation. “Because it’s never been done before, we’re being watched nationally and statewide.”

In the midst of Redd’s stunning political high wire act, some observers are predicting that she is also gambling with her chances for re-election next November.

So far, the public safety proposal has hit a number of politically sour notes that have the potential of turning the whole thing into a political albatross to hang around her neck come election time.

The city has fielded complaints from residents, not only about efforts to disband the department, but about the current level of police response time — which some say has dipped and become nearly non-existent since the announcement of her plan.

“I’m hearing horror stories,” said former Camden mayor Aaron Thompson, who contended that police response time has taken a nose dive despite the continued soaring crime rate and murder rate in the city.

“I hear complaints that people call, and the police never show up. Fortunately, I’ve had no need for police,” said the former politician, who is now in his 80s. “I seldom see a police officer on the street.”

Another former mayor, Gwendolyn Faison, said there is little guarantee the new arrangement will work.

“There’s no information on the track record of something like this,” she said.

One barometer of success pointed to by skeptics is that despite the fact that the new department is supposed to be regional, very few of the other townships in Camden County have been willing to sign up for it.

Redd admits that transplanting a new county-run police department into the city of Camden has turned into a painful and sometimes messy process.

“Like any surgery, it’s messy,” Redd agreed. She conceded that sometimes the patient - in this case, the city - feels that things are getting worse. But, she said, until the transplant is in place, you won’t know the outcome.

In the meantime she said that many residents she has spoken to are eagerly awaiting the new department.

“They’re asking when are we going to get our new department,’” said Redd.

She said Camden “can’t arrest our way” out of its current record high homicide rate and soaring crime rate. She said she simply wants to stabilize the city’s crime statistics so that a more holistic approach can be used in addressing problems.

Her proposal calls for dissolving the current 260-member municipal police department to form a 400-member regionalized police department, based in Camden with a “metro division” to focus on the city. The proposal calls for the closure of the current 141-year-old department and the creation of a new, cheaper agency to be run by the county, one that will put more boots on the ground. One way the new regionalized police department would save money is by doing away with the existing union-negotiated police contract.

The messiness seemed to get worse last week when the FOP, which represents the current officers on the force, voted 142 to 62 against a county package that would have dismissed litigation against Redd’s new plan.

So far Redd’s new bold experiment has left quite a few heads shaking. Even NAACP state president James Harris has expressed misgivings about the changeover.

In brief remarks, Harris called the plan to dismiss the Camden Police Department as “wrong” and “unjust.” and pledged his organization’s full support.

“The NAACP will use all of our resources to stay on this issue, and to bring national attention to the disrespect and the unreasonable approach to bringing about police reform in the city of Camden,” Harris said.

“Do not eliminate the Camden Police Department. Find ways of improving it, but do not eliminate it,” he urged.

John Williamson, president of the Camden FOP, representing Camden’s police, refused to speculate on how firing the police department would impact Redd’s political future, other than to argue that Redd was on the wrong side of what he called a “civil rights issue.” Williamson argued that civil rights entered the picture since Camden is one of the most diverse police departments in the state - with one of the poorest and largest minority populations.

Though under intense political fire, Redd remained unfazed in a recent interview about her term of office..

“We need to do something bold and creative,” Redd said of her plans. “We cannot move the city forward unless we address public safety.”

Former councilman Ali Sloan El, who has helped to spearhead opposition to the new police plan, said Redd had better look to her own re-election possibilities.

Sloan El, who calls himself “the People’s Champ,” said that opponents of the plan are betting that a court ruling this April will allow a referendum on the ballot next November on the issue of the police outsourcing. If the referendum gets the green light from the courts, he said, it will be on the ballot at the same time Redd was running for re-election.

According to Sloan-El, even with her current strong support in the city’s Democratic machine, the opposition stirred up by the referendum could spill over into Redd’s popularity, and leave a bad taste in the mouths of voters who would normally support her.

“It’s going to be hard for her,” said Sloan-El last week. “The referendum will set up whoever opposes her. Whoever opposes her will have a chance because of the referendum.”

Sloan El , who spent time in prison for a corruption conviction while a councilman, said that besides the cops referendum, there will also likely be a change-of-election referendum that will ask voters to support a change from current partisan elections. That would mean candidates would run without party labels and without overt party backing, a process that could help underdogs and independents.

Sloan El believes the ripple effect from voter support for such a referendum could splash back on Redd’s administration as well, whether she is re-elected or not.

“I don’t make my decisions based on [my] re-election prospects,” Redd said. “I’m not positioning myself for re-election. I’m just doing what I think is best for Camden.”

She said her record will speak for her.

“We’ve been stepping,” she said. “In three years, I think we’ve done six years of work.”

In a city often accused of mismanagement and waste of taxpayer dollars, Redd has had three straight years of budget reductions and awards of $69 million and $61.4 million in Transition Aid to Localities from the state. State officials also praised her for “demonstrating fiscal prudence.” And she has accomplished this in a climate in which three previous mayors have been indicted on corruption charges.

Redd is dismissive of those who complain that she is giving away her power by handing control of the city policing to the county. She believes she is empowering herself to do more by handing over police operation to the county.

“What’s the good of all that power if it’s not effective in solving the problem?”