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Camden City Council urges officials to advance plan for county police force

At a special meeting Tuesday, Camden City Council demanded that city officials move forward with a plan that would diminish the city police force and create a county police department.

At a special meeting Tuesday, Camden City Council demanded that city officials move forward with a plan that would diminish the city police force and create a county police department.

A resolution "supporting the immediate implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding in furtherance of the establishment of the Camden County Police Department" was approved, 6-1, Tuesday, after several three-minute opposition speeches from residents and union officials.

Tuesday's action simply "reinforces the original MOU," said Council President Frank Moran, who voted in favor of the resolution. Vice President Curtis Jenkins was the only vote against, saying he had concerns about current officers losing their jobs.

The memorandum was signed by city, county, and state officials in August working to come up with a proposal on how a county force would work in Camden. Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John F. Timoney was hired to devise a plan. But after two weeks of consulting work, Timoney's slim report was vague in details. It said Camden ideally would have about 400 officers, but it did not say how the force would or should be paid for.

In passing Tuesday's resolution, Moran said, Council was demanding a detailed finance report.

"Come with the numbers. Come with the budget," he said. "We want to see the plan."

About a dozen people - mostly union officials and the usual Council gadflies - spoke in opposition to any plan. Nobody spoke in favor.

"Our police officers aren't perfect, but we know them and they know us," said activist Mary Cortes, a Cramer Hill resident. "These trigger-happy state police officers only want to prove themselves."

State representatives for the Fraternal Order of Police said the plan was about politics and not public safety.

"This is union-busting, plain and simple," said Edward R. Brannigan, national FOP vice president and New Jersey FOP president. He asked Council to hold a referendum on the plan to let residents decide.

After the meeting, Camden City Police Chief Scott Thomson called the union-busting talk a distraction and said a county department would offer "tremendous opportunities" to double the current force.

The current city department has 260 officers on the payroll, though its effective strength is estimated to be about 215.

"I get the anxiety and concerns, but . . . public safety has to prevail," Thomson said.

Crime in Camden has been increasing in recent months, with 49 homicides so far this year. Last year at this time, there were 38.

Tuesday's resolution also states that Council will be able only to provide advice on the finalization and implementation of the plan.

As of last week, work rules, salaries, and possible early-retirement packages for some veteran officers were still under discussion, according to County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. Nothing has been released since then.

Advocates say the county force, which would be paid for by the city's budget, would nearly double the number of officers on the city streets, to 400, and would save money, in part by hiring officers at lower salaries. Opponents, including officers and police unions, argue that the plan would neither provide cost savings nor keep residents safer.

In January, Mayor Dana Redd - facing a $26 million budget deficit - laid off 168 officers, nearly half the force. She has since rehired more than 100, though up to 50 have retired or plan to leave soon.

Suburban towns have resisted the idea of joining a county force. At this point, the metro division would be the only component of the county force, with Thomson likely leading the division.

Under the county proposal, current or laid-off city officers would be given consideration for the new positions, which would come at lesser salaries, officials said. Qualified officers who live in the city would be given top priority. There has been no mention of how many years of service would qualify an officer for early retirement.