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Layoffs could soon make Camden even more dangerous

Tuesday could be another dark date etched onto the timeline of Camden's slow demise or just another setback on its rise to stability.

Camden Mayor Dana Redd. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)
Camden Mayor Dana Redd. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)Read more

Tuesday could be another dark date etched onto the timeline of Camden's slow demise or just another setback on its rise to stability.

Barring last-minute negotiations or unlikely heroics from the state, a city considered one of the country's most dangerous will lose 160 to 170 police officers - half its department - and the fire department could lose about 70 firefighters because of a crushing $26.5 million budget gap.

"Unfortunately, in the city of Camden, we're always facing one crisis after another. It's either crime or drugs or gangs or poverty or something else," said Councilman William Spearman, a lifelong city resident. "I must admit, this is one of the more difficult situations I've ever seen in my lifetime."

Many of those laid-off officers will walk from the city's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge Tuesday, possibly with a bagpipe brigade, to hand in their gear at the Police Administration Building down the street. In June, 50 new officers walked the city's streets as Mayor Dana Redd and Chief Scott Thomson expressed the importance of each uniformed body to the city.

Police administrators declined to comment on the layoffs this week, and Redd's spokesman, Robert Corrales, said the mayor and her administration have been willing and waiting to talk with union officials. Regardless, he said, public safety in Camden, named the nation's second most dangerous city last year, would not be compromised.

"At the end of the day, we're still going to have police officers on the street. We're still going to be doing our job," Corrales said. "We're going to patrol the streets."

Sources say the department will switch from three 10-hour shifts to two 12-hour shifts to keep the same number of officers on the street at any given time. Another source said 25 officers called out during one shift yesterday as a protest.

The notion that public safety won't be affected by mass layoffs is laughable, union officials said.

"Unless L-3 Communications [a tech firm in Camden] is building a fleet of robocops they're going to unleash on the city, what can you really do to compensate losing half your police department?" asked John Williamson, president of the Camden Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

The city asked for 20 percent wage reductions, Williamson said, and the FOP countered with an 18-month wage and step pay freeze. The union also agreed to shift changes, furlough days and reducing the ranks through retirement, he said.

"We negotiated, we did our best," he said. "We made offers that were in line with what the governor asked of other employees."

Williamson said the union has not met with city officials since before Christmas and he didn't anticipate that anything would happen today or tomorrow. Officers who spoke with the Daily News on condition of anonymity were mixed about the union's efforts on their behalf. One patrolman, who will lose his job, said the members haven't been kept up to date on offers and counter-offers.

Corrales said members need to know that some jobs could be saved and officers brought back through concessions.

"We want to save jobs and we've always been willing to meet," he said.

Along with the layoffs, many department supervisors will be given their second demotion in six months. The department will eliminate the position of captain altogether and some supervisors will become patrolmen again.

"You're going to have guys who have been supes for 11 years getting bumped back to patrolman. It's going to be horrible," said a supervisor, who asked not to be identified. "There's been a horrible atmosphere here since about July of 2008 and its been getting worse. Morale is terrible."

Thomson was named chief in July 2008 and numerous officers said he has not addressed the department, either in person or via e-mail, regarding the layoffs and coming changes.

A spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie declined to comment on the layoffs, but U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., lauded Redd for "a heroic effort with a heroic budget."

"She has not politicized this or blamed this on the governor. What the mayor has tried to do is take this in her own hands," he said. "This is something that the leaders of Camden have to do for themselves. There's no magic that will bail them out."

Camden has received $69 million in state aid, which Andrews said was more than any other municipality in the state.

The Guardian Angels announced that they would send patrols into Camden but surrounding police and fire departments may not be able to do the same, as many are facing their own budget and layoff issues.

Yesterday, the Camden County Board of Freeholders announced plans to form countywide police and fire departments. The freeholders have also called on law-enforcement agencies to help find ways to assist Camden.

In Gloucester City, which borders Camden, the fire department has always responded to mutual-aid calls for fires, but that city recently laid off eight firefighters.

"We've always helped and we'll continue to help when we can, but it's going to be difficult," said Chief Brian Hagan. "Everybody wants to cut public safety. I'll never understand it."

On Jan. 1, Camden's interim fire chief, David Yates, retired so that his $150,000 salary could be used to save jobs, he said. Yates believes the cuts, both to the fire and police departments, will have a negative affect on public safety regardless of what officials say.

"I'm not going to lie about reductions," he said. "It's going to be self-evident. You're going to see the results in time."