Troubled Camden, NJ hires back 50 cops
Even with a fully staffed force, the city ranked among the most dangerous places in the country
CAMDEN, N.J. — Two months after deep layoffs decimated the ranks of Camden's police and fire departments in a city that ranks as one of the nation's poorest and most crime-ridden, the departments are getting a boost amid worsening crime.
Camden Mayor Dana Redd announced Thursday that she has struck a deal with Gov. Chris Christie that will provide $2.5 million in state funding to rehire 50 police officers on April 1.
The size of both public safety departments will still be way down compared to before the January layoffs when 167 police officers and 68 firefighters were told their jobs were being cut. That represented nearly half the police force and about one-third of the fire department.
The $2.5 million to rehire officers is coming in the form of a rent payment from the South Jersey Port Corp., a quasi-state agency that runs two terminals in the city. Redd said it's enough to keep the rehired workers on force through June 30.
She said she expects to have a city budget that takes effect July 1 that will keep them around.
The mayor said the long-term solution, though, might come as part of a consolidated regional police force. Christie and state Sen. President Stephen Sweeney are scheduled to meet with Camden County officials next week to discuss that idea.
"It's time for all of us to assert leadership and work together on a new approach to combine and maximize public safety resources, eliminate redundancies and inefficiencies, and provide a long-term solution to create a new and strong public safety network," Christie said in a statement.
In addition to the hires announced Thursday, previously announced federal grants worth a total of about $9 million could soon be used to rehire about 15 more firefighters and additional police officers.
Even with a fully staffed police force, the city regularly ranked as among the most dangerous places in the country, according to CQ Press's annual analysis of FBI crime data.
When layoffs came, Police Chief Scott Thomson shifted detectives and supervisors to patrols hoping to have just as many officers on the street.
The changes meant that more investigations would be handed off to the county prosecutor's office, which is also bracing for deep layoffs that could take effect on April 1, and that the department would not send officers to minor car accidents or lesser crimes, like some thefts.
But it appears the changed tactics haven't done much to control crime. The county prosecutor's office says that in the first two months of the year, homicides were down. But there were nearly twice as many shootings and nearly four times as many aggravated assaults with a firearm.
Redd said the idea of bring back more officers was in the works before crime spiked, and that the additional crime was not a factor in bringing officers back.
Thomson said the rehired police will be on force around April 1 and will be put on patrols of hotspots, residential areas and business districts.
U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, a Democrat who represents Camden and its suburbs, said following rehires, there will be 20 percent more officers on the street than there were before the layoffs.
"To the criminals, who may have thought it was open season in the city of Camden, don't be mistaken. We're out there, we're on the ground and we're coming for you," Redd said in a news conference at the city's police headquarters.
The city's financial woes are deep.
It has hardly any commercial tax base. Most major enterprises there, like the port, a Rutgers University campus and a minor-league ballpark, make payments in lieu of taxes less than a full tax bill would be.
On top of that, tax revenue has been down in the sluggish economy _ and the state has cut aid to the city.
In the fiscal 2010, for instance, which ended nearly nine months ago, the South Jersey Port Corp., was to make an $8 million payment to the city. It never did. But in December, it said it would pay the city half of what it had promised for the previous year.
There's no promise that the city will see more payments from the agency beyond the additional $2.5 million that Christie agreed to pay.
The revenue problems meant cuts outside of public safety. For six months last year, civilian city government employees were told to work only four days a week _ and were paid for only four days. Still, about 100 of them were laid off in January as well.
Laid off public safety workers weren't exactly rejoicing about Thursday's announcement.
Robert Scott, a firefighter for five years before he was laid off, called it "a crock of crap." He pointed to a half-dozen murders and about as many homes leveled by fires since January.
"How many more lives will it take to bring everybody back?" he asked.