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Washington Examiner

 

Poverty-Ridden Camden, N.J., Faces Police Cuts Amid Increasing Crime

February 08, 2011

By Jacob Laksin

States and municipalities around the country are struggling to tighten their fiscal belts, but few cities face as stark a choice as the hard-luck southern New Jersey city of Camden. One of America’s most dangerous cities, Camden seeks to close a $26.5 million budget hole by laying off one-quarter of its city government workers -- including half of its police force. In an austerity plan that went into effect last month, the city laid off 180 uniformed officers and 20 police dispatchers from its 375-strong force.

Camden expects to save $14 million, but there is growing alarm that the city, one of the country’s poorest and most violent, will wind up paying a much higher price for its budget savings. Camden residents, already afraid to venture out after dark, worry that the city will become even more hospitable for criminals.

“They’ll be coming into the houses,” one fearful resident recently told the New Jersey Star-Ledger. “They know you can’t call the cops. There won’t be any cops to call.” The local press has reported on drug dealers openly relishing the prospect of a diminished police presence.

Camden’s Democratic mayor, Dana Redd, has held firm on the budget cuts. Echoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s tough talk about fiscal responsibility, Redd has insisted that Camden has no choice but to “live within our means.”

Redd has also adopted Christie’s confrontational stand against public-sector unions. She has placed responsibility for the layoffs -- not implausibly -- on the police union, which rejected her plan to save 100 police jobs through a pay cut in the form of unpaid furloughs.

The average salary for a rank-and-file police officer in Camden, after benefits, the mayor points out, is around $140,000 a year -- in a city where more than half of the residents live below the federal poverty line. Camden’s police chief, Scott Thomson, vows that the city can absorb the cuts by restructuring the police to focus more on violent crime and on street patrols. (New Jersey has also supplied state police officers to help patrol Camden for years.)

Behind closed doors, though, the mayor’s office is clearly worried. That’s evident from Camden’s application last fall for transitional state aid for 2011 (over and above all of the other state aid that Camden regularly receives).

Signed by Redd, the application raises a concern that the mayor is reluctant to state in public: “It is anticipated that the reduction of sworn officers within our Police and Fire Departments will result in a severe public safety crisis affecting residents, workers and visitors.”

That concern is well justified. Statistics show that violent crime has been on the rise in the city. There were 37 murders in Camden in 2010, compared with 34 in 2009. Shootings have spiked by 20 percent in the past year; the city’s streets are a firing range.

Camden’s violent crime rate is five times the national average, according to the FBI, while its overall crime rate is three times the national norm. A recent national survey ranked it as the country’s second-most-dangerous city.

But few practical proposals, apart from union concessions, have been put forward for how Camden might avert layoffs. As for the city’s usual bailout in state aid, it won’t save Camden this time.

Christie approved the city’s transitional aid application, granting $69 million in special aid -- more than for any other city in the state. Most of that money, however, will go to covering a host of basic services (like solid-waste removal) as well as pension costs. Redd asked for an additional $8.3 million to prevent layoffs, but Christie granted only $1.5 million.

Unless the police union makes real concessions, there seems little chance that laid-off officers will be rehired -- and Camden’s overstretched force will be even less equipped to patrol the city’s increasingly deadly streets.

Original Source: http://washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columnists/2011/02/manhattan-moment-poverty-ridden-camden-nj-faces-police-cuts-amid-increasi

 

 
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