Nearly a year ago, Alejandro Ramos was forced into a ritual upsetting to any proud police officer: He had to turn in his gun and badge after being laid off from the Camden Police Department.

On Thursday, he regained a gun, a badge, and a full measure of pride - 800 miles from home, in Nashville.

Ramos, 25, a rookie Camden patrolman when he was let go, graduated Thursday from the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department's 22-week academy.

The Gloucester Township resident was one of three South Jersey officers hired by the growing department, which has made a recruiting push into the area.

A laid-off Hamilton Township officer from Williamstown and a former part-time officer in North Wildwood who was a Sewell resident also were among Thursday's 30-member class - 17 of them from out of state.

"Going to New Jersey was our first overture to the Northeast," Nashville police spokesman Don Aaron said, noting that sweeping police layoffs in New Jersey were seen by the department's recruiters as an opportunity to hire trained personnel.

At least one other out-of-state police department - in Fort Worth, Texas - was recruiting in central New Jersey on Thursday.

Ramos and the other South Jersey officers said they had embraced the relatively relaxed pace of Nashville.

Hellos from strangers caught one of the officers off-guard early, but the recruits said they had been touched by the warm gestures.

For Ramos, it is a far cry from the day he sat stunned in his car at Camden police headquarters.

"It didn't really hit me until the day I had to turn my gun and badge in. It meant a lot, that badge. I worked so hard for it. They took a part of me away, a part of me that I worked for," he said.

He didn't think he would find a job in law enforcement again, at least not in New Jersey.

Jim Mulholland, a former North Wildwood officer, got engaged to his girlfriend of seven years, who moved with him in June and "took this leap," he said.

The New Jersey recruits said they saw potential for professional growth in a larger department that covers 533 square miles and a population of about 600,000 in Davidson County, which includes Nashville, even though its rates of major crime are not as daunting as in a much smaller place like Camden, population 77,000.

There have been 49 homicides in Nashville-Davidson so far this year, and 46 in Camden.

The officers are grateful for the chance still to be cops, which seemed unlikely in New Jersey, where layoffs have hit hard in the major cities.

Facing a $26 million budget deficit, Camden laid off 168 officers, nearly half its force, in January. It has since rehired 95. Other Camden officers found jobs in South Carolina, Virginia, and elsewhere in New Jersey, a city police union official said.

Camden now has 262 full-time officers policing a city listed as one of the nation's most dangerous.

Across New Jersey, 705 officers laid off since January have been unable to find work in law enforcement again, according to a survey by the State Policemen's Benevolent Association of all officers, not just union members, reported by the Star-Ledger newspaper of Newark in September.

Their best hope of renewed employment as police officers may be outside New Jersey.

New Jersey officers have long been attractive candidates to out-of-state agencies, which find the officers desirable because they are well-trained, said Mitchell C. Sklar, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.

On Thursday, a PBA Twitter feed announced that recruiters from Fort Worth would attend a job fair at the union's Woodbridge headquarters for laid-off New Jersey officers and others.

Over the years, the metropolitan Nashville department has bolstered its numbers as its communities have grown. Thursday's class was the 12th since 2007.

The 1,339-member force operates out of six precincts, and the department plans to build two more, as well as a DNA crime lab, by 2013.

Nashville planned to hire 200 officers over the next 18 months to cope with attrition and retirements and to reflect the region's growing multicultural population, a recruiter said a month after the Camden layoffs.

"I'm happy right now," said Joseph Snyder, 29, a five-year veteran of Hamilton Township who applied to about 20 departments after being laid off in February. "Just the potential here, the size of the department, it's got much more opportunities."

As word of Camden's looming layoffs spread, a Nashville recruiter traveled to Camden in December 2010 to interview officers. The department planned to return to administer physical and civil service tests if interest was high.

"They kept their word," said Ramos, who took the tests in December. He started at the academy six months later.

In their pitch, Nashville officials touted the city's lower property taxes, lower cost of living, and job security. Tennessee residents don't pay a state income tax, and Nashville covers all contributions to the city's pension fund for public-safety employees.

"Down here, it's an insanely cheap housing market. Property taxes, you would laugh at them compared to the Northeast," Snyder said.

But he took a substantial pay cut in Nashville, he said. He used to make close to $80,000 in New Jersey.

In Nashville, a rookie's salary ranges from $40,000 to $44,000. After 15 years, the base salary is $54,000.

In Camden, officers start off around $31,000 and can get to about $73,000 after a decade, union officials said.

For Mulholland, a 24-year-old former North Wildwood officer from Sewell, the $650 a month rent for his two-bedroom apartment has been a blessing - and the apartment holds a special place in his heart.

On Nov. 23, he asked his girlfriend to marry him.

But even before he got engaged, he had formed warm memories of the Music City. A stranger held open the door of a Waffle House for the couple. The man greeted them by saying, "Happy Thursday."

"I never heard that in my life before," Mulholland said. "It's true what they say, there is such a thing as Southern hospitality."

Contact staff writer Darran Simon at 856-779-3829,, or @darransimon on Twitter.