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Christie hails Camden force

The new county police department, he said, will lead to "better, stronger . . . law enforcement."

At Malandra Hall in Camden, a ceremonial swearing-in for Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson on 5/1/13.  Afterward, Gov. Chris Christie shakes Thomson's hand.  ( APRIL SAUL / Staff )
At Malandra Hall in Camden, a ceremonial swearing-in for Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson on 5/1/13. Afterward, Gov. Chris Christie shakes Thomson's hand. ( APRIL SAUL / Staff )Read more

Gov. Christie came to Camden Wednesday to hail the advent of a new county-run police force in the city as "a transformational moment for both the city of Camden and Camden County - most importantly for the people, the children, the families, and the neighborhoods that they live in."

Christie, an early supporter of the new Camden County Police, which Wednesday replaced the nearly 184-year-old city police department, said it would lead to "better, stronger, more effective, more visible law enforcement."

Flanked by the new department's leadership, the governor spoke at the swearing-in ceremony for former city Police Chief Scott Thomson, the new chief of the city's metro division, in Malandra Hall, a community center in the Fairview Village section.

Before Christie's remarks, more than a dozen former city officers gathered outside. Some carried signs indicating their years of service and made a symbolic line on the street with their patrolman's boots in a neat row. One retired sergeant said the group had come to attend the ceremony but was told it was a private event.

At one point one officer walked toward the hall entrance, the sergeant said, and was stopped and handcuffed by a member of the new force. He was escorted away and charged with "defiant trespassing."

Christie said Mayor Dana L. Redd and county freeholders showed "great courage, real conviction, and perseverance" for spearheading the change.

"We will be proud when Camden is no longer in the top five of the most dangerous cities in America," Redd said.

Christie heralded the new force as "a jumping-off point to do something bold and necessary [to] bring law enforcement to [a] city that deserves far better than it's been getting."

Referring to criticism from some in the city that the new force was just a ploy to break police unions, the governor said the changeover was "not about choosing sides in a labor-management dispute or about bringing about change for the sake of change."

"We had a calcified organization failing in its basic, solemn obligation to serve and protect the people of this city," Christie said. "We can now count on a larger, rejuvenated police force genuinely dedicated, I believe, to helping to restore neighborhoods, taking them back from criminals, and making mothers and fathers comfortable in the simple pleasure, an expectation, of seeing their children safely play in their own neighborhoods."

Earlier in the day, City Council approved four resolutions completing the transition.

In a special meeting before Christie's arrival, Council voted, 6-1, in favor of a shared services agreement between the city and county that will guide how the county will police the city for the next 10 years.

The state also entered into an agreement with the city and county that sets up a payment process for the metro division among the three parties.

The city will pay the county $62 million in the fiscal year starting July 1 to fund the Camden City Metro Division of the Camden County Police Department. The metro division, when fully staffed, is expected to number 400 officers, making it considerably bigger than the force of less than 300 that it replaces.

"We've demonstrated fiscal responsibility, and I'm confident we'll be able to pay for it," Redd said after Council passed the agreement.

If there is a need for further expenses such as new vehicles for the division, the county would request the city's approval, according to the resolution.

Council also approved a resolution to transfer all police-related contracts to the county, including information technology and telecommunications. The Department of Community Affairs, which has veto power over any Council resolution, immediately approved all four resolutions.

The city, which has a highly eroded tax base and is not self-sufficient, relies on the state to fund the majority of its budget. The state supplied $102 million to the city toward its $150 million budget for the current fiscal year ending June 30.

During Wednesday's ceremony, Christie said Camden would be receiving $98.6 million in state aid for fiscal 2014, not including the need-based transitional aid dollars that Camden has been receiving for years.

"I think the mayor would be the first one to tell you that she would love to no longer have any transitional aid, but that's not possible at this moment," Christie said Wednesday.

To avoid any shortfall, the county gets first dibs at any state aid money the city receives. But state aid always fluctuates and is dependent on the Legislature's approval.

Christie has been a supporter of the new force since county and city officials introduced the idea two years ago.

Before his speech, he shook hands with county officers. During his remarks, he heaped criticism on the police union and leadership. He said officers received shift differentials for all three shifts.

"That's a trick, man. When are you supposed to work if you're not getting your shift differential for all three shifts?" he said to chuckles.

John Williamson, president of the former department's rank-and-file union, said the union had offered to eliminate the daytime shift differential - which he said was the city's "only point of contention."

Christie said most of the opposition to the new force came from "union leadership that could not see beyond their own interests to recognize that Camden needed a break from excessive demands for more and more money when there was no more to give."

Williamson called Christie's remarks "probably one of the most ridiculous statements the governor has made to date."

"We've always taken the city's financial condition seriously and into consideration any time we have gone to the bargaining table," Williamson said.

During the swearing-in ceremony, Thomson pointed to what he said was a success: Drug corners had been shut down and no gunshots had been recorded in Parkside in the last month, since a new batch of officers started patrolling the neighborhood.

"Failure is not only not an option, it's not a concern for me, because of the character and the commitment of the men and women in this organization," Thomson said. "We will be successful, and we will continue to revolutionize public safety in the city of Camden."

More than 150 former city officers who applied to the new force have been hired to be among the first 260 officers on the force.

City officers who did not apply were officially laid off Tuesday.

"The process is politically manufactured," said Tyree Nobles, the former sergeant who had been offered a job with the county department but turned it down. "I can't say anything about the force, because you have to give them the opportunity and the ability to perform under pressure."

Dan Keashen, a county spokesman, said Nobles and others were not allowed to attend the swearing-in because the event was a "private event, not a public affair. . . . Like any of the governor's events, there is always an area for protesters."

The metro division will only patrol Camden, which had a record 67 homicides in 2012; no other towns in the county have agreed to be part of the county force.

Some residents who live near a drug hot spot in Parkside have said they have been generally pleased with the increased police presence.

"I see them every day, the whole week, every hour, on every corner," Naeem Jackson, 31, said this month.

The rank-and-file union and some residents have fought the plan in court, calling it a mistake and a union-busting tactic. The county NAACP has also expressed concern that the new officers may not be familiar with urban policing.

City and county officials argued for the new force in part because they said it allowed them to shed police contracts, eliminate extras like differentials, save millions of dollars, and hire more than 100 civilian police aides to supplement the sworn officers.

In January 2011, the cash-strapped city was forced to lay off 168 officers - nearly half the department - to cover a $26 million deficit. Many of those officers were later rehired through grants.