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Camden and county to combine police forces, Mayor Redd announces

With crime rates soaring in Camden, Mayor Dana L. Redd announced Friday that she was moving ahead on a controversial plan for a county takeover of the Camden Police Department.

With crime rates soaring in Camden, Mayor Dana L. Redd announced Friday that she was moving ahead on a controversial plan for a county takeover of the Camden Police Department.

The announcement was short on details and offered no timeline for when Camden might enter into an agreement with Camden County, saying only that the entities had exchanged financial information and were working to "refine" a plan.

"It's a complex transaction, and we're doing our due diligence," Redd said Friday night. "But we can't stay in this situation we're in now too much longer."

In addition, New Jersey state police are set to begin a targeted surge in Camden on Monday, continuing on random nights through the end of the year, according to law enforcement sources.

Redd declined to discuss the details of the operation, saying only that the state was sending "resources."

"You will see a noticeable difference if you come to Camden on Monday," she said.

A state police spokesman declined to comment.

The mayor had been quiet recently on the idea of the county takeover, raising questions about whether she would move ahead on a plan that could force her to cede control of the city's 260-officer police department.

But her decision Friday, after a week in which she has been in steady contact with top officials from Gov. Christie's administration, seemed a turning point.

"This signifies progress and commitment," said Camden County spokeswoman Joyce Gabriel.

Redd said she had never backed off the takeover, which Camden City Council agreed to study in August, but had been weighing the matter carefully.

"I only give concrete information," she said.

She and other city officials came under increasing pressure in recent weeks with the release of crime data that showed over the last year Camden's homicide rate has climbed 30 percent; its burglary rate has increased 43 percent.

The crime wave followed the layoff in January of more than 168 city police officers, nearly half the department's ranks, due to a $26 million budget shortfall - although more than 100 officers have been hired back.

City Council President Frank Moran called Camden a "city under siege" after the murder Monday night of a popular bodega owner in Cramer Hill.

But how much Camden, which for years has topped lists of the nation's most dangerous cities, has declined in the last year is open to debate.

Jose Santiago, a Cramer Hill resident and frequent critic of the city administration, said crime in the city was a constant.

"I still see the same guys dealing drugs on the same corners they've dealt on for years," he said.

Redd, as she called on the state to increase its police presence in the city, said, "It's not just Camden. We're all experiencing this spike in robberies because of the economy."

The renewed likelihood that Camden's police department would be disbanded was a further blow to officers whose morale was already low, said John Williamson, president of the Camden Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

"We protect the public. The elected officials are our protection," he said. "And the question becomes: What do you do when the people who took an oath to protect the protectors abandon them?"

While the details of a county takeover are still being worked out, Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said Friday that the new Camden force would likely number around 400 police officers.

For now, county and city officials are working out fees and other details. Once agreed upon, a county police force could be up and running in four to six months.

But after decades of decline, from a blue-collar town of bustling factories to a crime-ridden city of abandoned rowhouses, the idea that a new police force would change anything has been met with skepticism.

Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico, moved to Camden 30 years ago and speculated it would take just as long, if not longer, for Camden to turn itself around.

"It's going to have to be the next generation," he said. "We need to start focusing on education, changing the culture, getting people employable. Let's start to find a solution, and I don't mean the police. I mean, let's really solve this."