CAMDEN, N.J. | Jan. 18, 2011.
John Williamson said he can point to that day as a one of several reasons why the city is continuing to struggle with high crime rates. Williamson, a Camden police officer and president of the Camden Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, said the city gained international attention that day because it laid off nearly half its police force, or 168 cops, and a slew of firefighters to close a budget gap.
"It kind of opened the flood gates for what we're experiencing now," said Williamson, adding police were making progress at the time in handling crime.
Following that controversial move, Camden and Camden County officials are embarking on a new plan that has been equally divisive. Officials want to create a regional police force to include a division responsible for patrolling the city of Camden. The city would pay the county to administer its police service through a shared services agreement and the existing police department would be scrapped.
Supporters say the city is on the right track at battling crime and the regional police plan would help control costs and improve relationships with area public safety forces.
Residents left in the middle
Some would argue those flood gates Williamson described have long been open.
Since 2005, Camden has been in the top five among New Jersey municipalities with the highest number of violent crimes such as rapes, robberies and murders reported per capita, according to data available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The violent crime rate in 2010, the most recent data available, was about seven times higher in Camden than the national average.
In the first seven months of this year, 39 people were slain in Camden. Comparatively, police in Gary have investigated 24 homicide cases this year, while investigations are continuing on findings of three sets of skeletal remains.
City supporters contend Camden isn't bad as a whole, but has been a dumping ground for years along with people from outside the area looking to score drugs or prostitutes.
Rasheeda Moton, 58, of the Whitman Park neighborhood, grew up in Camden, but it looks much different now than when she grew up. She said the city still is reeling from the impact of drugs such as heroin and crack being introduced in the community and the breaking up of families in the 1970s and 1980s.
"The city right now -- as my daughter calls it -- it's like a town forgotten," Moton said. "It's like destitute. It's no hope. When you don't have hope, you have desperation. I can't imagine not having hope. When you have no hope, you go for broke, and that's what going on right now."
North Camden resident Kathy Soto described her neighborhood as a "mini-war zone." Streets are bad as a result of the gang-related shootings and drug sets that operate in the area.
Community activist Frank Fulbrook said he believes the city is on pace to beat its record of 58 homicides set in 1995.
"It's mainly drug dealers killing other drug dealers," Fulbrook said. "Police do point that out, but don’t offer a solution." One solution he offered was to legalize all illicit drugs and regulate the products as other controlled substances such as alcohol.
Innovation needed in policing?
City political and business leaders, including insurance company executive and Cooper University Hospital board chair George Norcross III, say the new regional plan can help thaw the years-long chilling effect on new investment in the city because of concerns about public safety. Members of the Camden County Board of Freeholders and a handful of state legislators also have pledged support for the plan.
A consultant was hired in June, the Cordero Group, to implement the countywide police model. Also, a post on the Camden County Board of Freeholders' website is soliciting interest for applicants to the Camden metro division of the county police department.
Camden Mayor Dana Redd said the city is pleased to be moving forward with the plan, even though other municipalities have yet to sign on.
"I think once we get this off the ground, other towns will want to join in," Redd said. She said in the era of shrinking budgets, there's going to have to be more partnerships that are formed, including public-private collaborations.
A request to interview Chief Scott Thomson was directed to the mayor's press aide, but Thomson was not made available.
Yale Law School professor Tracey Meares said regional police forces make sense in many ways, especially for economic reasons. The conflict with developing a regional police department is that many municipalities in the area may still have localized governance structures.
Camden had 423 sworn police officers in 2006 and 366 in 2010, according to data reported to the FBI. Williamson said in late June, the department had about 263 officers.
"We haven't seen numbers like that since the '60s," he said.
While there is a perception that more boots on the ground is the solution to reducing crime, Meares said research studies have yet to prove there is a clear relationship between the two.
Police unhappy with 'solution'
The union, with the assistance of a communications consultant, started a Facebook page, "Save Camden City Police Department," as a way to engage residents and get support for their effort.
"It's basically union busting," said Fulbrook, who lives in the Cooper-Grant neighborhood near Rutgers-Camden. Fulbrook said he's not in favor of scrapping the Camden police force because it doesn't attack the issues specifically related to why crime happens in the city.
Even though Williamson said residents are sympathetic to their plight, the effort has been difficult to stop. The reorganization doesn't require a citizen vote and the lawsuits filed to stop the effort have been unsuccessful so far. The angling for positions within the new department also hsd started, which he believes is to the detriment of the existing force.
"I think there's a giant shell game going on," Williamson said. "Unfortunately, two entities (the police department and residents) are suffering as a result of it."
Williamson said morale among officers is at the lowest level it has been in his 17 years at the department. He said there have been 10 police leadership changes at the department since 1996. Even though some may argue change is needed with the crime stats the city posts each year, he said the instability trickles down through the department.
One beat officer, who asked his name be withheld fearing retribution, said stress is abnormally high because low personnel levels are forcing the administration to place current officers on exhausting schedules.
"We have more trouble from the administration than the people out here," he said.
Community changes sought
Rasheeda Moton said she doesn't approve of people joining gangs, but she understands why young men are allured by being a part of them. They can get money for food and can provide a surrogate family and safety for them.
In reorienting the police department, Meares said the approach taken in providing public safety in the community has to change as well. She said police can find ways to achieve compliance that is longer lasting, more pervasive and cheaper in other ways than some approaches that emphasize the focus on deterrents such as stiffer prison penalties for certain crimes.
"Most people obey the law either because they think it's the right thing to do or the government has the right to dictate to them proper behavior," Meares said.
Redd agrees, and said police can't arrest their way out of problems.
In addition to the county police plan, she said the city needs to reduce the amount of time students spend outside of school not engaged in productive activities and enhance support for ex-criminal offenders re-entering the population.
Linking support services with families to address challenges can provide tangential benefits in public safety. Ministers and religious groups are active in providing support to crime victims, Redd said, which is important to improve conditions in the city.
When Williamson describes the situation at the police department, his facial expression contorts in a sign of frustration and then becomes sullen. He recalls city officials appearing on television in 2011 saying that police services wouldn't be impacted as a result of the large officer cutback. And he also believes that those words were lies then and they are paying the price.
"It's going to take us years to recover from this," Williamson said.