For several years, even as the Camden city administration warned that it was unable to financially support its police department, more than half of $12 million in federal and state grants that poured in during that time lay unused.

Most of that money couldn't be used because the city failed to keep police staffing at levels required by the grants.

But more than $500,000 in grant money that the city was free to use sat around for two years until recently when the police department purchased various items, including new cars, portable radios, and tires, according to an Inquirer analysis of police-related grants the city has received since 2009.

In addition to the unused grant money, the city also had $1.8 million in money from a 2001 municipal bond issue lying unused that it recently decided to divert from the fire department to fixing the police administration building.

The beneficiary of the city's newfound largesse is the new Camden County Police Department, whose metro division took over policing in the city this month.

The city has leased the administration building to the county for $1, and it has also transferred the former department's equipment to the county for $1.

"It's amazing how we say we don't have money and now all of a sudden we have all this money to spend," said Councilman Brian Coleman, who has been critical of the way the new county police force was assembled.

In January 2011, facing a $26 million budget deficit, Mayor Dana L. Redd laid off nearly half of the city's police force. The city then received enough money from the state and federal governments to rehire more than 100 officers later that year.

Almost immediately, however, city and county officials started working toward a county police model, saying it would save money in the long run.

"The City of Camden can no longer sustain the costs of maintaining necessary levels of police services and intends to lay off all the uniformed members," Redd wrote on Nov. 29, 2012, to the chairman of the New Jersey Civil Service Commission.

The Camden County Board of Freeholders approved a resolution at its Jan. 26 meeting establishing the new county Police Department.

And just as it prepared to transition to the new force, the city began to dip into the stash of grant money it had accumulated.

In the first four months of the year, the city finally put the leftover $500,000 from a federal Justice Assistance Grant toward buying new cars and equipment.

Coleman questioned whether the terms of the federal grants permit the city to transfer equipment bought with that money to the new county force for a token sum.

Questions

The U.S. Department of Justice said the transfers are proper.

The county Police Department could be considered a sub-recipient per the Crime Control Act and therefore may "use and manage equipment . . . as long as the equipment is used for criminal justice purposes," said Justice Department spokeswoman Sheila Jerusalem.

Former city police officers who are not part of the new county force are questioning why the city waited until the department was about to be eliminated to purchase items they desperately needed, especially new SUVs.

"The cars were beat up, out of service, and unsafe," said Odise Carr, a veteran patrolman who was laid off April 30 when the city force shut its doors.

Slow repairs

Carr said it took four months once to get his patrol car fixed when its rear axle broke. Mechanics used an axle from an out-of-service police vehicle as the replacement, he said.

Most of the unused grant money was meant to go toward paying the salaries and benefits of rehired officers during the 2011 layoff crisis. More than $8 million in the federal Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, grants was awarded in two installments: $4.3 million for 19 rehires and $3.8 million for 14 rehires.

But the city was not able to find enough qualified hires to maintain the minimum of 269 officers it promised to be able to draw on the grants.

"We sent out hundreds of [police reemployment] letters and only got six responses," city spokesman Robert Corrales said last week.

It wasn't until July 2012 that the department's ranks crossed 269, and it began to draw down from both COPS grants. But by the fall, officers started leaving the force, and the department had drawn only $1.8 million of the COPS money before the grants became inaccessible again.

"They could have hired and maintained that number, but they didn't do it," said John Williamson, president of the former department's rank-and-file. "They purposely withheld police services from residents to increase crime . . . to justify their position on the county force."

Rep. Robert Andrews, a Democrat from South Jersey, said he hopes that now that Camden has the new metro police, it can use the grant money to help "maximize the number of officers."

Camden's inability to use the grant money during two of its most violent years was the result of the grant's legal restrictions, Andrews said. The city had a record 67 homicides last year.

"It was a box they were stuck in," he said Friday.

City Finance Director Glynn Jones said any unused police grant money will be used to help the city pay the county's annual $62 million bill for the metro division.

The division has 253 sworn officers but is expected to grow to 400 by the end of the year, enabling it to claim the grant money.

The equipment that the county has received from the city for $1 includes 15 Ford Explorers newly purchased for nearly $400,000 and loaded with $65,000 worth of "stealth" emergency lights.

"If the city is trying to save money, why is it giving [away]" the equipment? Williamson asked.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at it - yesterday you didn't have money, but today they have all this money," said retired Police Sgt. Tyree Nobles. "This was part of the manufactured plan . . . designed to destroy the Camden Police Department."

Camden Metro Deputy Chief Orlando Cuevas said the department had money left over from the 2009 Justice Assistance Grant in part because some of its purchases cost less than anticipated.

"We deal with what we have at the time," Cuevas said. "You are constantly buying when you can."

Contact Claudia Vargas

at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," at www.philly.com/camden_flow.

Staff writer Darran Simon contributed to this article.