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New Camden, N.J. Police Force Officially Takes Over

Gov. Christie came to Camden Wednesday to hail the advent of a new county-run police force in the city as "a transformational moment for both the city of Camden and Camden County -- most importantly for the people, the children, the families, and the neighborhoods that they live in."

Christie, an early supporter of the new Camden County Police, which as of Wednesday replaced the 184-year-old city police department, said it will lead to "better stronger, more effective, more visible law enforcement."

Flanked by the new department's leadership, the governor made his remarks at the swearing-in ceremony for former city police chief Scott Thomson, the new chief of the city's metro division, in Malandra Hall, a community center in Fairview Village.

Before Christie's remarks, more than a dozen former city officers gathered outside. Some carried signs indicating their years of service, and made a symbolic line on the street with their patrolman's boots in a neat row. One retired sergeant said the group had come to attend the cermeony but was told it was a private event.

At one point one officer walked towards the hall entrance, the sergeant said, and was stopped and handcuffed by a member of the new force. He was escorted away and charged with "defiant trespassing."

Christie said Mayor Dana L. Redd and county freeholders showed "great courage, real conviction and perseverance" for spearheading the change.

"We will be proud when Camden is no longer in the top five of the most dangerous cities in America," Redd said.

Christie heralded the new force as "a jumping off point to do something bold and necessary [to] bring law enforcement to [a] city that deserves better than it's been getting."

Referring to criticism from some in the city that the new force was just a ploy to bust police unions, the governor said the changeover was "not about choosing sides in a labor management dispute or bringing about change for the sake of change."

"We had a calcified organization failing in its basic, solemn obligation to serve and protect the people of this city," Christie said. "We can now count on a larger, rejuvenated police force genuinely dedicated, I believe, to helping to restore neighborhoods, taking them back from criminals, and making mothers and fathers comfortable in the simple pleasure, an expectation of seeing their children safely play in their own neighborhoods."

Earlier in the day, Camden City Council approved four resolutions finalizing the transition.

In a special meeting held before Christie's arrival, Council voted 6-1 in favor of a shared services agreement between the city and county that will guide how the county will police the city for the next 10 years.

The state also entered into an agreement with the city and county that sets up a payment process for the Metro division between the three parties.

The city will pay the county $62 million in the fiscal year starting July 1 to fund the Camden City Metro Division of the Camden County Police Department. The metro division, when fully staffed, is expected to number 400 officers, making it considerably bigger than the force of less than 300 officers that it replaces.

"We've demonstrated fiscal responsibility and I'm confident we'll be able to pay for it," Redd said after city council passed the agreement.

If there is a need for further expenses such as new vehicles for the division, the county would request the city's approval, according to the resolution.

The Council also approved a resolution to transfer all police-related contracts to the county, including information technology and telecommunications. The Department of Community Affairs, which has veto power over any Camden City Council resolution, immediately approved all four resolutions.

The city, which has a highly eroded tax base and is not self-sufficient, relies on the state to fund the majority of its annual budget. The state supplied $102 million to the city toward its $150 million budget for the current fiscal year ending June 30.

During Wednesday's ceremony, Christie said Camden would be receiving $98.6 million in state aid for fiscal year 2014, not including the extra, need-based transitional aid dollars that Camden has been receiving for years.

"I think the mayor would be the first one to tell you that she would love to no longer have any transitional aid but that's not possible at this moment," Christie said Wednesday.

To avoid any shortfall, the County gets first dibs at any state aid money the city receives. But state aid always fluctuates and is dependent on the legislature's approval. Christie has been a supporter of the new force since county and city officials introduced the idea two years ago.

Before his speech he shook hands with county officers. During his remarks, he heaped criticism on the police union and leadership. He said the officers received shift differential for all three shifts.

"That's a trick, man. When are you supposed to work if you're not getting your shift differential for all three shifts," he said, to chuckles.

John Williamson, president of the former department's rank-and-file union, said the union had offered to eliminate the daytime shift differential -- which he said was the city's "only point of contention."

Christie said most of the opposition to the new force, came from "union leadership that could not see beyond their own interests to recognize that Camden needed a break from excessive demands for more and more money when there was no more to give."

Williamson called Christie's remarks "probably one of the most ridiculous statements the governor has made to date."

"We've always taken the city's financial condition seriously and into consideration anytime we have gone to the bargaining table," Williamson said.

During the swearing-in ceremony, Thomson pointed to what he said was success: Drug corners had been shut down and no gunshot had been recorded in Parkside in the past month since a new batch of officers started patrolling the neighborhood.

"Failure is not only not an option, it's not a concern for me because of the character and the commitment of the men and women in this organization," Thomson said. "We will be successful and we will continue to revolutionize public safety in the city of Camden."

More than 150 former city officers who applied to the new force have been hired among the first 260 officers on the force.

City officers who did not apply were officially laid off on Tuesday.

"The process is politically manufactured," said Tyree Nobles, the former sergeant with Camden who had been offered a job with the county department but turned it down. "I can't say anything about the force because you have to give them the opportunity and the ability to perform under pressure."

Dan Keashen, a county spokesman, said Nobles and others were not allowed to attend the swearing-in because the event was a "private event, not a public affair. ... Like any of the governor's events, there is always an area for protestors."

The metro division will only patrol Camden, which had a record 67 homicides in 2012; no other towns in the county have agreed to be part of the county force.

Some residents who live near a drug hot spot in Parkside, have said they have been generally pleased with the increased police presence.

"I see them every day, the whole week, every hour, on every corner," NaeemJackson, 31, said earlier this month.

The rank-and-file police union and some residents have unsuccessfully fought the plan in court, calling it a mistake and a union-busting tactic. The county NAACP has also expressed concern that the new officers may not be familiar with urban policing.

City and county officials argued for the new force in part because they said it allowed them to shed police contracts, eliminate extras like shift differentials, save millions of dollars, and hire more than 100 civilian police aides to supplement the sworn officers.

In January 2011, the cash-strapped city, was forced to lay off 168 officers -- nearly half of the department -- to cover a $26 million deficit. Many of those officers were later rehired on grants.

Copyright 2013 - The Philadelphia Inquirer

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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