Police union officials in Camden believe they have found a way to potentially block plans to dissolve the city Police Department and replace it with a county force.

Union members and city activists are circulating a petition to force Mayor Dana L. Redd to hold a referendum and put the matter before voters.

Under state law, if they gather signatures amounting to 15 percent of the city turnout in last month's general election - about 900 people - and overcome likely legal challenges, the city would be required to 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 Redd to move quickly on the proposal for a takeover by Camden County.

The city homicide rate has climbed sharply this year, a consequence, critics say, of the decision to lay off about half the police force in January, though many officers have since been rehired.

Backers of the county takeover say it would help nearly double the size of the cash-strapped city's existing department, in part by hiring officers at lower salaries.

That has drawn the ire of the unions that have characterized the plan - which would dissolve the existing department and rehire no more than 49 percent of those officers for the new force - as nothing more than a union-busting maneuver.

"This whole process is a charade," said New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police president Ed Brannigan. "They're going to pick and choose which officers they bring back. Partly on age; partly on union involvement."

The plan has seemed nearly certain to be enacted since Redd, under pressure from Gov. Christie, agreed weeks ago to move ahead on the deal with the county.

But the question hanging over the union's plan is whether the county takeover of a city police force is a valid question for a municipal referendum. Ballot questions typically deal with issues such as alcohol consumption and business hours.

Camden County spokeswoman Joyce Gabriel said lawyers there were looking into that question but declined to comment further. Redd's office also declined to comment.

Matt Weng, a lawyer 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.

In 1998, activists tried to force Camden to put plans to privatize the city's water and sewage system on the ballot. But the city rejected the petition on the grounds that it was not a suitable referendum subject, an opinion upheld by Camden County Superior Court Judge Francis J. Orlando.

But Williamson, who said he discovered the possibility of a referendum over the summer, said he believed the union's petition would stand up.

He is asking voters whether they support 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 to collect 5,000 signatures over the next 30 days, to withstand the city's verification process.

If the petition is validated, Camden will have up to 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.

Outside City Hall Wednesday afternoon, activists were already gearing up for a get-out-the-vote campaign against county politicians, in particular Democratic leader George E. Norcross III, a strong supporter of the county takeover.

"Bring it on," said Ali Sloan El, an activist and former city councilman who served time four years ago on a bribery conviction. "I've beaten George [Norcross] before, and I'll do it again."

Frank Fulbrook, a longtime activist in Camden who led the unsuccessful 1998 campaign against water and sewer privatization, speculated that if the police union succeeded in putting the future of the department to a referendum, it would almost certainly win.

"People feel safer to have Camden cops that have been Camden cops rather than a whole new police force at the lowest price they can get away with," he said. "But [the city] is going to fight a referendum."

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