After more than a decade of only socializing indoors and behind safe doors, Nicole Rome basked in the afternoon spring sun Wednesday in Fairview Village section of Camden, while chatting with her neighborhood friend Tiwanna Morris.
The two women sat on a cement pillar near Malandra Hall, where Gov. Christie and several high-ranking state, county and city officials celebrated the official start of the new Camden County Police Department.
The county force replaced the 184-year-old city department.
"Fairview is not what it used to be; Camden is not what it used to be," Rome, 35, said. "I haven't sat in Yorkship Square since '95 or '99."
The visibility of the new police officers has been encouraging, Rome said. But as many others in the city, she is also hesitant to completely embrace the new force.
"A lot of people think it's temporary," Rome said of the new police officers' proactive approach to crime by patrolling the streets in large numbers. Rome and fellow residents say this period with the new force will be similar to when the state troopers came in by the dozens to Camden in December 2011, following the mass police layoffs and increase in crime. Residents then suffered through a record-breaking year when the city recorded 67 homicides in 2012.
"The difference will be if (new police officers) stay consistent with it," Rome said.
In January 2011, the cash-strapped city laid off 168 officers - nearly half the department - to cover a $26 million deficit. Many of those officers were later rehired through grants.
City and county officials argued for the county 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.
The rank-and-file union and some residents have 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.
But Morris doesn't mind who is patrolling as long as the officers respond to all police calls.
"When you called police they never came unless someone's head gets blown off," Morris, 50.
The women, who are both mothers, want the police officers to also be role models for the neighborhood children.
Camden's youth "need some type of authority," Rome said, adding that the police "need to get a grip on the younger generation."
Rome's 10-year-old daughter attends Yorkship School and her 13-year-old son attends Morgan Village Creative Arts School.
As the two black SUV's were escorted out with police vehicles wailing their sirens, the two women stretched their necks to catch a glimpse of Christie, whom they assumed was inside one of the cars.
Their intention was to hear what the the governor had to say on the new police but they were told it was a private event and were not allowed in.
Still, they enjoyed the nice weather outside and were hopeful they could continue to do that.
The new force "is the last hope we have" to make Camden's streets safe again, Rome said. "If they can't get it done, then (the city) just needs to hang it up."