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Crime-ridden Camden phasing out old police force

April 30, 2013 5:09:51 AM PDT
As a couple members of the new Camden County Police Department Metro Division walk along Haddon Avenue, Todd Israel pops out of his barbershop to shake the officers' hands.

"I haven't heard a gunshot since you've all been out here," he tells them.

For Israel, a longtime resident of the Parkside neighborhood, the arrival of the new, larger police force, is bringing an optimism he's rarely felt in one of the nation's most dangerous cities.

He might not ready to let his 8-year-old daughter walk anywhere by herself, but he's no longer in constant fear of what she'll witness when she's out with him.

The changeover will be complete on Wednesday when the new county-run police force takes over and the city police department is officially disbanded. The move was designed to shed costly provisions of the old force's union contracts while laying the groundwork for a countywide police force that suburban towns have so far been reluctant to join.

Police union officials in Camden fought the takeover and some opposition political candidates are concerned that it's another way the city government is losing control of basic governmental functions. And some activists stress that solving crime takes a lot more than better policing.

Since the new force began April 8 with officers going door-to-door in the Parkside neighborhood to introduce themselves, it seems to have changed one slice of a city that has long been among the nation's most impoverished. The plan is to have intensive foot patrols again in every part of the city to build relationships with residents and scare away out-of-town drug buyers.

According to a map of Camden homicides compiled by Hopeworks 'N Camden, there have been more than two dozen homicides in Parkside since 2003. But gunshot-sensing microphones confirm no shots fired there in the three weeks since more intensive patrols began, police said.

The overarching story about Camden for more than a half-century has been of a city on the decline - closing factories, rising poverty, riots, drugs, high drop-out rates, mayors jailed for corruption. A decade ago, state lawmakers pumped $175 million into the city in a plan to upgrade infrastructure and expand hospitals and universities in hopes private investment would follow; it may not have been a fair test as the Great Recession came just as it was hoped the private money would start to arrive.

But perhaps the darkest day in recent Camden history came on Jan. 18, 2011, when half the police force was laid off as part of deep cuts in a city government - long dependent on the state for most of its revenue - saw its subsidy cut.

Police unions warned that crime would spike, and despite officials' assurances they could deploy police in smarter ways, it did.

Proactive police work largely disappeared. The officers who were left could only respond to emergencies, and not even all of them.

Even as laid-off officers were brought back, the crimes continued. Police and residents alike say the bad guys were emboldened.

Chief Scott Thomson said shootings, previously an early-morning occurrence, started happening during daylight - and sometimes right in front of police cruisers. "It was essentially the wild, wild West," he said.

Last year, there were a record 67 homicides in the city of 77,000 - making Camden's murder rate about 18 times the nationwide rate.

After the layoffs, Camden was down to about 175 officers and just a handful of civilian department employees. Those who were laid off were all eventually given a chance to return, but many had found other jobs.

The new force is to have approximately 400 officers and 100 civilian employees when it's fully staffed later this year. The plan is for virtually all the police to be on the streets, many on walking beats, as civilians handle administrative functions and jobs such as crime-scene processing.

Thomson said he expects that crime will fall and, importantly, that residents will feel safer. "They can now come out on their front steps," he said. "They can now walk to the corner stores without facing and being menaced by the thugs that had controlled the streets."

The bigger force is possible largely because of shedding costs. County police consultant Joe Cordero said the city government will pay Camden County approximately $62 million a year for police services, about the same price that the city had spent on its own in recent years. The state has paid $10.5 million in startup costs including new squad cars, computers, consultants and salaries of officers assigned to the new force before the transition was complete.

In the old force, officers could make thousands per year in longevity bonuses and shift differentials.

Though the base pay for the new force is the same or higher at every level - $47,000 to $87,000 for rank-and-file officers - take-home pay will go down for those who move to the new department at the same rank.

Among those patrolling in Parkside last week were officers Anson Simmons and Bianca Rivera. Both were laid off in 2011 but hired back later.

The last time Rivera regularly walked a beat was shortly after she became an officer more than a decade ago.

Last week, she asked a man to turn down his booming car stereo. He argued the law with her, but by the time she was done with what she calls "verbal judo," he was thanking her for an explanation.

She said it's those relationship-building interactions that can ultimately make the city safer.

"This is where everything starts," she said.

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