Big 'ifs' in plan for new Camden police force

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson (left) and Camden County Prosecutor Warren W. Faulk (center) hold a press conference with FBI Supervisory Special Agent Jeffrey Walker. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

The latest plan to create a Camden County police department bears little resemblance to the proposal made nearly two years ago. That doesn’t mean the plan can’t work, but it faces serious challenges due to the lack of participation by any municipality other than the city of Camden.

With 41 homicides so far, 14 more than at this time last year, Camden cannot afford to make any mistakes in replacing its police force with this new outfit. People’s lives are at stake. If the bloodshed continues at the current pace, the city could surpass the record of 58 murders in 1995.

Important details for the transition have yet to be worked out, including an agreement with the state to pick up start-up costs so they’re not dumped on Camden County taxpayers. Gov. Christie backed the plan to lay off the city’s roughly 270 officers to make way for a county-run force, so he should make sure adequate funding is secured.

Christie and Mayor Dana Redd have decided to proceed with the plan even though it will initially cost the cash-strapped city more money after being presented as a cost-saving measure. Redd’s proposed fiscal 2013 budget includes $35 million for law enforcement, up from $29 million in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

City spokesman Robert Corrales said the higher budget accounts for a “worst-case scenario” in which Camden pays out millions of dollars to settle lawsuits related to the transition.

Redd said the decision to move forward with the new force by the end of this month was based on a spike in crime in the city of 79,000 people, ranked as one of the most dangerous towns in the country. The new force could begin patrolling the city by the end of the year, if the state approves the layoff plan as expected.

Current officers say the new arrangement is simply a vehicle to bust their union. Less than half of them will be allowed to join the county force, which is expected to have as many as 400 officers.

Any savings from the new force, which is being called the Camden Metro Police Division, would come from cutting salaries and benefits. The current union contract would be tossed aside.

Union leaders make a point, but they might get more sympathy by giving up expensive perks, such as taking paid leave to conduct union business on junkets to Atlantic City. Past inflexibility by the union on modifying work rules that hampered the deployment of officers in high-crime areas was a major factor in proposing an alternative police force.

Even without the participation of other municipalities, the new force is expected to greatly improve public safety. Camden residents, however, are understandably leery about that. People want stronger assurances that there won’t be even greater gaps in law enforcement. They want to trust that an officer will show up when they need one.

If the new department can successfully operate within Camden, perhaps other municipalities will be persuaded to join the arrangement. And if that happens, some of the cost savings this plan is supposed to generate may actually occur. But those are big ifs, and if they aren’t achieved, crime will only get worse in the city.