One of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. is disbanding its police department.
According to an article from NBC News, officials in Camden, N.J., plan to replace the city’s 141-year-old police department with a non-union division of the Camden County Police amid what they call a “public safety crisis.”
Camden city officials have touted the move as necessary to combat the city’s growing financial and safety problems. The entire 267-member police department will be laid off and replaced with a newly reformatted metro division, which is projected to have around 400 members, the article says. It will serve only the city of Camden starting in early 2013.
However, Camden isn’t the first cash-strapped city to be faced with the choice of eliminating or merging its police department, NBC reports.
“This really reflects a much broader issue, which is that the economy is changing the delivery of police services profoundly,” says Bernard Melekian, director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office, in the NBC News article. “And those agencies undergoing regionalization and consolidation – in particular, smaller ones that are financially distressed – are going to have to find another way of delivering those core services.”
However, given Camden’s exceptionally high rate of violence (the city recorded this year’s 41st homicide earlier in August), city police officers in danger of being laid off say the transition is risky at best, saying that bringing in new people unfamiliar with the city and giving them free rein to fight crime is, “a recipe for disaster,” says Camden Fraternal Order of Police President John Williamson.
Afflicted by homelessness, drug trafficking, prostitution, robbery and violence, Camden has consistently ranked high among the top 10 most dangerous cities in the U.S. since 1998, and the city had the highest crime rate in the U.S. in 2010, with 2,333 violent crimes per 100,000 people – five times the national average.
Layoffs of the city’s police force will begin by the end of the month, according to the mayor’s office, and county officials say that at most 49 percent of the city’s police officers, based on an application process, will be transferred to the new county division on the plan, NBC News reports.
Officials say that the terms of contract for current officers of the city’s police department, which include longevity bonuses, day-shift differentials and other costs, make it too expensive to transfer all of the city’s officers to the new force, so the rest of the Metro Division will be staffed by new hires. NBC News also reports that more than 1,500 people from various states and police backgrounds have already applied for the county positions.
The new division will begin training on the streets as early as October for a period of 17-19 weeks.
Union officials argue that Camden’s move is a way for the city to avoid collective bargaining with police, as the county’s new metro division officers will be non-union members, the article says.
However, Camden’s method is not an isolated one. A 2011 report by the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association, a group representing the nation’s 63 largest police forces, found that 70 percent were consolidating some law enforcement functions to compensate for recent budget cuts:
- Faced with mounting costs and declining revenue, the city of Midvale, Utah, was forced to merge four local police agencies with the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department.
- In Pennsylvania, the state police are increasingly taking on more patrol duties following the recent closures of municipal departments. Since 2010, at least 33 cities scattered throughout the state have closed or scaled back their agencies, according to state records.
- Police agencies in Oakland and Detroit have raised concerns about their ability to respond to routine resident burglaries, theft, and public nuisance calls because they were stretched too thin providing support for other agencies.
Cities that have made the switch from municipal to county or regional forces have reported saving millions of dollars and passing grades on the street, but Melekian said a shakeup of the current system in Camden won’t eradicate crime or solve budgetary woes:
“The consensus seems to be that this saves money, but it does not produce instantaneous savings,” Melekian says in the NBC article. “There are too many issues that need to be resolved, too many expenses, so at some point they’ll have to work through these inefficiencies before they get the results they want.”