Thursday, August 30, 2012

What's Really Going On With Camden Police Force

NBC News breathlessly highlights that "one of the most dangerous cities in the nation is ditching its police force". That's not exactly the case in Camden, New Jersey.

The city has decided to cut costs by breaking the police union by calling in the Camden County police force to do the job of the formerly local police department. The county force is not unionized and has lower benefits and compensation than the local unionized police force did.

Camden is broke for all intents and purposes. It can't afford to maintain even its current paltry level of services. It has to look for ways to reduce those costs. One of the ways is to cut duplicative services. The county police force has the potential to do the same job as the existing police department - at a fraction of the cost.
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 some 400 members. It will serve only the city of Camden starting in early 2013.

“It’s not a money-saver, it’s living within the budget you’ve got to get more boots on the ground,” Camden County spokesperson Joyce Gabriel told NBC News. “There has been an uptick in violence this year, and the city decided to go with the county’s police department.”

Camden isn’t the first cash-strapped city to be faced with the decision to eliminate or merge its police department.

Bernard Melekian, director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office, told NBC News that as communities around the country recover from the recession, police mergers are part of a new reality that will likely continue through the next decade.

San Bernardino, Calif., files for bankruptcy with over $1 billion in debts
“This really reflects a much broader issue, which is that the economy is changing the delivery of police services profoundly,” Melekian said, “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.”
Despite Gabriel's comments, it is intended to save the taxpayers money. It's part of a larger effort across New Jersey to work with shared services or to combine municipalities and their services to reduce costs to taxpayers.

And it's not like the Camden police have done a tremendous job in reducing crime in the city. The city's crime rates exceed those of most other areas of New Jersey and are well ahead of national rates. Violent crimes have been increasing while property crime has declined.

The city needs to change how it deals with quality of life and public safety; this may be how it starts. The county police patrolling the city will end up being about 50% larger at a comparable cost to the current force. More manpower on the street means more officers around to patrol city streets and make their presence felt in high crime neighborhoods. If the city further adopts a CompStat system of policing, the new effort may see even more benefits as manpower is more focused on high crime areas and criminals are taken off the streets with greater effectiveness.

Dealing with the costs of policing aren't confined to high crime areas. Here in Bergen County, the fight is whether to merge the Bergen County Police with the Bergen County sheriff's office. Some opposed to the idea claim that it would politicize the functions previously done by the police since the sheriff is an elected official (whose job includes running the county jail). Bergen county is only one of two counties in the state to still have a county police department - in addition to the sheriff and all the local police departments. Those services should be merged, since it would save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salaries, plus benefits.


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