Camden police need all the help they can get in their battle against crime in a city now ranked as the second most dangerous in the country. Given the urgency, it is mind boggling that a proposal made eight years ago to set up surveillance cameras to help catch criminals still hasn’t been carried out.
The $1.6 million needed to pay for the cameras has been secured. But bureaucratic and leadership changes that occurred after the state took over Camden in 2002 before restoring local control this year have delayed its Eyes in the Sky program. The state Treasury Department appears to be responsible for the latest hold-up. A spokesman said the procurement process to buy the cameras is “complicated.” That’s not a good excuse when it comes to public safety.
A committee has been holding monthly meetings to consider bids for the camera system, but it hasn’t decided on a vendor. Due diligence in spending taxpayer funds is commendable, but unnecessary delays are inexcusable. Jersey City and other new New Jersey towns had their camera programs up and running in two or three years. Camden’s slow pace may set a record.
With the Camden police department facing layoffs, the city desperately needs the cameras to help make up for the expected loss of manpower. As many as 150 officers may lose their jobs. The cameras could be used to help offset that loss of personnel by simultaneously monitoring several streets by using laptops.
The cameras, protected by bulletproof shields, could be moved to different locations. Camden activist Helene Pierson has lobbied for a camera at the corner of Broadway and Ferry Avenue, where children waiting for school buses find themselves sharing the sidewalk with drug dealers. Police Chief Scott Thomson says the cameras will increase his department’s coverage of the 9-square-mile city, which just found out that it’s still among the nation’s most dangerous.
Only St. Louis placed higher than Camden in the annual ranking of city crime rates by CQ Press. Camden had held the top spot since 2008, so there has been improvement — but not enough. Camden Mayor Dana Redd blasted the survey as flawed. She says overall crime has dropped to a 40-year low in the city. The survey, which used 2009 crime data, has been criticized by some law enforcement officials as well.
Philadelphia’s crime rate was ranked 30th among the 400 cities surveyed. But it was seventh among cities with populations of more than 500,000, behind Detroit, Baltimore, Memphis, Washington, Atlanta, and Indianapolis. Even if Camden’s crime rate has dropped in recent years, it still has serious problems. So far this year, the city of 79,000 has had 33 homicides, which matches the number for all of 2009. That’s a considerable drop, though, from its 55 murders in 2008.
Now is not the time to give ground back to the criminals. The surveillance cameras must be installed quickly. U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D, N.J.), who helped secure federal funds for the cameras, has promised to help move the project. That’s a good start.