CAMDEN, New Jersey — In a day of protest and celebration, Camden's old police force was officially retired Wednesday and replaced with a new county-run force designed to get more officers on the street at about the same cost.
Gov. Chris Christie, who was in Camden in March to announce a state takeover of the public schools, returned for the official handover of police duties in a first-of-its-kind arrangement in New Jersey.
"We had a calcified organization failing in its basic solemn obligation," Christie said to an audience of officials, officers and civic leaders, including several clergy members.
Last year, the city of 77,000 had 67 homicides, a record even for a city that has experienced decades of violence; officials say there are about 175 drug corners in the city.
The Metro Division, the only division so far, of the new Camden County Police Department expects to employ 401 officers — most with beats walking or biking in neighborhoods — and about 100 civilians later this year. After layoffs two years ago, the city force had dropped to 175 officers and only a handful of civilians; as a result, the department has spent two years doing little more than responding to emergencies.
The new department has the same chief and will still be paid for from heavily state-subsidized city coffers. The City Council on Wednesday approved paying the state $70.3 million to run the new department through June 2014. That works out to $62 million per year, about what the force had cost in recent years, officials say.
The biggest change is that the new force is not bound by the old union contract, which included provisions for longevity pay and shift differential pay for most officers. The base salaries for officers will be higher, but take-home pay for those who are doing the same job as before will likely be lower.
The creation of the new department also meant that about 100 officers were either laid off or retired. Some declined to apply for jobs in the new department; others were not offered jobs or turned them down.
About two dozen former officers appeared outside Wednesday's ceremony at Malandra Hall, a recreation facility, holding picket signs and laying their boots on the ground in protest.
They complained about misinformation, saying the often-recited figure that 30 percent of officers called out sick daily was inaccurate, and that the real absentee rate was much lower.
One, Melvin Ways, said the city was deploying officers in a way that drove crime rates up in recent years "to make this appear to be a necessity." Mayor Dana Redd denied that claim.
After officers on the new force told Ways he would not be allowed into the ceremony without an invitation, he said he would have to be arrested to be kept out. He was handcuffed and driven away, all before the governor arrived.
Redd, who relinquished some control over policing in her city, said she hopes that the new county-force model can be used elsewhere in New Jersey.
While in Camden, it was implemented as a way to shed an unfavorable contract, officials see it as a means to make policing more efficient in the suburbs. But so far, it has not caught on. No Camden County towns besides Camden has joined the one here.
Bergen County has a countywide police force that has specialized units such as a bomb squad, and it assists with municipal departments. A plan to create a Somerset County department has fizzled.
Christie said the state government would support consolidating police forces.
Redd said the additional police manpower would make her city safer.
"We will be proud when Camden is no longer in the top five of the most dangerous cities in America," she said.
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