In a community center in Camden's Parkside neighborhood, two dozen officers stood at attention in rows of twos and threes, their hands clasped, staring stone-faced -- an unusual show of force not far from a drug hot spot.
The officers, all newly minted, were the prime exhibit in a show-and-tell Monday, presented as the first batch of a new county-run force to hit the city's streets.
Outside the building on the 1100 block of Haddon Avenue, more than a dozen police cars and SUVs with a new logo -- "Camden County Police" -- blocked the street.
"I thought somebody got killed. That's the only time I see that much police in this area," said LeRoy Ryan, 33, as he stood on the porch of his brother's house across the street.
And so began the first day on the street for members of the county force that is to replace the city's 141-year-old police department by April 30.
The officers marched out of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, spreading out into one the city's most dangerous neighborhoods on foot as they began two months of training.
The new officers hail from all over, including suburban towns such as Cherry Hill and Evesham. They were among 250 hired recently to fill the county-run force's metro division, which will only patrol the city of Camden.
"Camden County is in Parkside, and we're here to stay," Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. told reporters. "We're not going anywhere."
Cappelli said the officers "will train where they patrol."
Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd said authorities deliberately chose a drug hot spot -- Princess and Wildwood Avenues -- as a staging ground.
"We're sending a loud and a strong message: Stop the nonsense; those days are coming to an end," the mayor said.
About a dozen of the city's record 67 homicides last year took place in that neighborhood.
Redd also announced the formation of a quality-of-life neighborhood task force to address issues such as abandoned vehicles and vacant buildings.
Among the 118 officers sworn in Monday were nearly 90 former Camden city officers, a county spokesman said. The new force is expected to grow to its full strength of 400 by the fall, Cappelli said.
County officials say the new force will be much bigger than the current city department -- down to less than 200 now -- because it will not be governed by current police contracts, which they term overly generous.
The new force has emerged despite two years of contention, with fierce resistance from the rank-and-file police union and pockets of residents, who have termed the plan a mistake and a union-busting move.
The new officers who hit the streets Monday will be trained alongside former city officers who are now part of the new force.
Copyright 2013 - The Philadelphia Inquirer
McClatchy-Tribune News Service