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Daytime Camden police patrols hit hard by layoffs

Just after 1 p.m. on Day One in post-layoff Camden, the radio call went out for all available officers in the northern sector to flood a known drug corner at Sixth and York Streets.

Just after 1 p.m. on Day One in post-layoff Camden, the radio call went out for all available officers in the northern sector to flood a known drug corner at Sixth and York Streets.

Officers quickly showed up in their squad cars, lights flashing, ready to spread into drug-infested North Camden to clear corners and make arrests. Such a mobilization ordinarily draws between seven and 10 officers, a supervisor on the scene said.

Three patrolmen showed up Wednesday.

This is life in post-layoff Camden, where the Police Department works with depleted resources to try to hold the ground that it says it has recently taken from the gang members and corner boys. There are 202 officers left after 163 were laid off Tuesday because of a $26.5 million budget hole. Because the layoffs hit the youngest officers, in accordance with union rules, all of the remaining officers were hired before 1999.

"It's a new organization," Police Chief Scott Thomson said Wednesday. "And we have to change the way we're doing business. Our business model has changed."

Thomson acknowledged that there might be fewer officers on the ground during the day, but he said his night patrols were as strong as ever. The foot patrols around the Walter Rand Transportation Center, which he instituted a few months ago, continued as normal Wednesday.

"I must not give up an ounce of ground," Thomson said.

Two last-minute efforts at recalling some officers to work failed Wednesday.

In the morning, the Fraternal Order of Police sought a temporary restraining order to halt the layoffs.

At an evening union meeting, officers rejected - by a vote of about 300-1 - Mayor Dana L. Redd's latest proposal for contract concessions, which would have restored some jobs.

According to an e-mail Redd sent to the union president just after 1 a.m. Tuesday that an officer provided to The Inquirer, the city proposed the following concessions:

Furloughing officers for 30 days between now and June 2012.

Freezing salaries for 17 months.

Eliminating allowances for taking classes and buying uniforms.

Increasing health-benefit contributions (for example, co-pays for doctor visits would go from $5 to $10).

Such concessions would have prevented 32 layoffs and saved $2.2 million. Redd wrote in the e-mail that if she got the concessions, she would also "seek" to use $4 million from a South Jersey Port Corp. payment made late last year to save an additional 47 positions. Ten more positions, she said, could be restored by pursuing new revenue streams.

"This proposal would have been a better proposal if it guaranteed . . . that we would not be facing the same layoffs later down the line," union president John Williamson said. "Everybody's concern was the uncertainty."

Part of the uncertainty, he said, was whether Redd would really use the $4 million port payment to prevent layoffs. There was also uncertainty because Camden's structural deficit is so severe that when the new fiscal year begins in July, more layoffs are possible. In addition to police officers, 67 firefighters and 113 other city workers were laid off Tuesday. Dozens more were demoted.

One laid-off officer stormed out of the union meeting, saying the proposal was "trash."

Redd issued a statement after the vote that read, in part: "This offer not only would have saved approximately 100 police jobs, it would have demonstrated their commitment to the residents of Camden."

Earlier this week, the FOP was considered closer to a deal than the three other public-safety unions.

Al Ashley, president of Fire Officers Local 2578, saw his membership drop from 50 to 30 on Tuesday because of demotions related to the layoffs.

Just as the cuts began to take effect Tuesday morning, fire hit the basement of the Northgate II apartment high-rise, Ashley said, and all firefighters on duty in the city were called to the scene. In addition, two volunteer units from suburbs were called in.

To deal with the cuts on the police side, shifts have been lengthened to 12 hours, and at any given time there are almost no officers left in headquarters doing administrative work, Thomson said.

Thomson himself has been doing patrols, and Deputy Chief Michael Lynch was wearing a bulletproof vest Wednesday, readying himself for more street work.

Thomson said officers shouldn't be alarmed when they hear that his vehicle - Car 1 - is on patrol. "We're out working the streets with you, we're out there backing you up," he said.

Thomson said he met with about 120 of the 163 officers who were laid off, and he addressed roll calls Wednesday for officers still on duty. He said he told them "a torpedo has hit us, and this ship isn't going to sink."

There has been some confusion over how many officers were laid off. On Tuesday, Redd said the number was 168. On Wednesday, the chief put it at 163.

And in court Wednesday while trying to halt the layoffs, union attorneys argued that more officers were laid off than listed in the layoff plan, and that the city had not lowered its layoff numbers to adjust for recent retirements.

"They demonstrated completely bad faith in the process," one of the union attorneys, Stuart Alterman, said.

But Camden County Superior Court Judge Francis J. Orlando Jr. said the union would have to seek an appellate court reversal of the layoffs or appeal to the state Civil Service Commission, and then he dismissed the matter.

At least 11 police officers have retired since the layoff plan was submitted in November, according to city records.