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Camden lays off nearly half of its police force

Ed Vincent
Ed VincentRead more

Dave Seybert, a nine-year veteran of the Camden police force, handed in his gun and badge Monday afternoon at police headquarters.

"They shook my hand and told me good luck," said Seybert, 32, of Audubon. "The hardest part was walking out the door."

Seybert, who thought he would survive the cuts until a layoff notice came two weeks ago, was among the first wave of officers turning in their equipment.

Hope for a last-minute solution to the city's budget crisis steadily waned Monday. There was still some uncertainty about what the final numbers would be, but it was expected that about 163 police officers, 60 firefighters and 150 non-uniformed city employees would lose their jobs.

Police Chief Scott Thomson said he will have about 200 officers to police one of the nation's most dangerous cities. Still, he said, the department will maintain the ability to "proactively" fight crime.

The department will no longer be able to "perform traditional services the public has come to expect," such as responding to vehicle accidents without injuries, minor thefts and vandalism, Thomson said.

Residents will now have to phone those incidents in or visit headquarters.

"With the resources we have left we cannot have officers responding to those calls and still maintain a presence in drug and violent crime hot spots," Thomson said.

On Monday, city leaders and union officials traded final jabs to cap a failed labor negotiation, while those who had received their layoff notices resigned themselves to being unemployed in the morning.

"I'm number 44 and they're laying off 60 of us," said firefighter Pete Perez, who has been with the department six years and attended a protest rally where clergy leaders spoke out against the pending cuts.

He had worked his last shift at Engine 6 in downtown Camden Monday morning. There was a fire call on his last shift, a house blaze in South Camden. Afterward, the father of four cleaned out his locker and loaded his bags.

Mayor Dana L. Redd's office said Monday afternoon the door remained open if the unions were willing to make any concessions.

Talks with the police union stalled weeks ago, and a meeting between the firefighters union and city attorney Marc Riondino Friday didn't go anywhere.

"At one point we asked them if there was anything we could do to stop the layoffs. One of them said, 'yeah, give us half your salary,'" said Al Ashley, president of the the fire department officers' union.

The mayor's office remained hesitant in saying what effect $5.5 million in payments from the state and the South Jersey Port Corporation would have on the layoffs and whether that money would be used if the police and firefighters' unions didn't agree to wage reductions.

"Everything we do has to be approved by the state," said Robert Corrales, the mayor's spokesman.

For longtime residents, who have watched the city change over the last half-century from a bustling manufacturing center to one of the nation's most- dangerous cities, the pending loss of almost half the city's police force felt like the beginning of the end.

N.I. Colon, 57, of East Camden, was so exasperated she called the White House last week to see if officials there could do anything to help.

The criminals "are going to tell you 'Go ahead and call the cops.' Who is going to come?" she asked Monday.

As the city prepared for the layoffs, Thomson met with many departing officers.

"It's been an extremely difficult day," he said. "We are losing great people who have dedicated their lives to this city."

Thomson said he has reshuffled staff and schedules to try to minimize the loss of a police presence on the streets.

About 92 percent of his remaining officers will be dedicated to street patrol and investigations, he said, while the administrative departments will bear the brunt of the reductions. About 45 ranking officers, being demoted in the cuts, will return to patrol.

The city is struggling with a $26.5 million budget gap, the result of a long decline in Camden's property tax base and Gov. Christie's decision to cut state aid, which made up more than 80 percent of Camden's budget last year.

City workers are not planning to go quietly.

Police have plans to march along Federal Street from the Fraternal Order of Police building to police headquarters, as remaining officers go to turn in their gear Tuesday morning.

Bill Lutz, who runs Camden's records department and is scheduled to be laid off, said he planned to put in a records request himself to review the layoff process from start to finish.

"I am the records department, so the request may take a little longer to get a response," he said.