INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Towns that joined the proposed combined Camden County police force could see initial savings of up to $25,000 per officer, Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said Tuesday.

The savings, Cappelli said, would largely come by reducing the health and retirement benefits officers receive. Reductions in administrative staff would reap additional savings, he said.

The current system of one police department per town is inefficient, said the freeholder, who was accompanied by other county officials at a meeting with the Inquirer Editorial Board.

"We don't need 36 police chiefs. . . . We need police officers on the street," said Cappelli, who said the combined force could put more officers on patrol.

Police currently receive retirement income through the state pension system. Jim Ryan, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Policemen's Benevolent Association, questioned the county's ability to reduce those benefits for members of the new combined unit.

"It's required by law," Ryan said.

Camden - which laid off 163 officers in January, but was able to rehire 74 - is expected to take part in the consolidated force if it is created. The county has said it could have the force operational within four months once a request was made.

"Two or three" municipalities are in close talks with the county, said Cappelli, who declined to name the towns but characterized them as being in "financial distress."

A Camden spokesman said that the city was considering the proposal, but that any new arrangement would have to provide "enhancement or expansion of public safety services" for the city.

The haste with which the county is planning the proposed department - which would patrol 228 square miles that range from blighted urban neighborhoods to affluent suburbs - has some law enforcement officials scratching their heads.

Berlin Police Chief Robert Carrara, president of the Camden County Police Chiefs Association, questioned why the county was moving so quickly. A committee that is exploring the feasibility of a consolidated force has met for only five hours, he said.

"We as police chiefs, and law enforcement as a whole, have some serious questions about a county-wide format," Carrara said Tuesday.

Under the plan, towns that join the county force would disband their police units and lay off staff. No more than 49 percent of each department's officers would be hired to the new force, thus avoiding civil-service rules that would require the officers to be compensated under their existing contracts.

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

Staff writer Darran Simon contributed to this article.