Police union officials in Camden believe they have found a way to potentially stop plans to dissolve the city's police department and replace it with a county force.

Union members and city activists are circulating a petition that could force the city to hold a referendum and put the matter in the hands of voters.

Under state law, if they get signatures matching 15 percent of the turnout in the city in last month's general election - which would work out to about 900 people - the city must put the matter on the ballot and abide by the outcome.

"We believe this is something that should not be left to people in a back room," Camden Fraternal Order of Police President John Williamson said at a news conference outside City Hall Wednesday afternoon. "This is a democratic society."

The announcement came the day after Camden City Council passed a resolution urging Mayor Dana Redd to move quickly on the proposal for a county takeover.

Backers of the plan say it would almost double the size of the existing department in part by hiring officers at lower salaries.

The controversial plan has seemed a near-certainty in recent weeks since Redd agreed to move ahead on a deal with the county.

Camden County spokeswoman Joyce Gabriel said attorneys were looking into whether the future of the police force was something that could legally be put to voters.

Matt Weng, an attorney with the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said it was unclear whether the proposed takeover of a police force could be put to a referendum.

"It's a complicated situation," he said, adding that the question might be decided in the courts.

But Williamson, who said he discovered the possibility of a referendum this summer, said the petition would ask voters whether they supported changing the language of the ordinance that created Camden's police force to require the city to "maintain" it into the future.

"The key is the word maintain," he said.

The union plans on collecting 5,000 signatures over the next 30 days to ensure the petition holds up to verification by the city clerk's office.

If the petition is verified, Camden will have up 60 days to hold the referendum, according to the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

That could conceivably put the question of the future of Camden's police force before voters by April.

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.