Pennsauken Township's Police Department will not be replaced with a Camden County-run force, the township's public safety director said Wednesday, ending weeks of uncertainty among officers and other residents about the future of policing there.
"We have unanimously decided that Pennsauken police stays right where they are," Public Safety Director John Kneib said at a Township Committee meeting, where a crowd of more than 150 people - mostly officers and their families - erupted into applause and cheers, with some yelling, "Thank you!" and "God bless us!"
For Camden County, the township's decision signifies the tough challenge it faces in expanding its police force beyond the city of Camden, the only place it patrols now.
The rejection came less than two weeks after President Obama came to Camden bearing praise for the force's accomplishments. "This city is onto something," he said, citing sharp declines in violent crimes, such as homicide.
The county paid a law enforcement consultant nearly $80,000 to produce two reports - one of which Pennsauken police officers received last week - to try to persuade the township to join the county-run force. The most recent report suggested the township would save more than $30 million over six years by doing so.
But Pennsauken's mayor and the Township Committee members, who were scolded by some officers and residents for even considering the idea, didn't bite.
Pennsauken Police Chief John J. Coffey said after Wednesday's meeting that he was thrilled with the decision to forgo the county's plan.
"Obviously they're going to have to go somewhere else," he said. "But I think they're going to meet the same level of resistance in a lot of towns."
Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen said the county would continue to approach other municipalities. He added that "it will take time for a state with more than 400 police departments, and a county with 35 police departments . . . to realize the benefits of regionalization."
Pennsauken officers feared a new force would eliminate the township's approach of responding to all calls, including burglar alarms, which they said residents expect. Much of the cost savings from a county force would have come from pay cuts to the township's 82 officers, many of whom said they live in Pennsauken.
"All of our men know the town," Sgt. Len Rebilas said. "Which is very important."
He called the Township Committee's decision "great."
"It's a relief just to get it out fast, instead of letting it drag on," he said.
The county has sought to expand its police force since May 2013, when it took over policing in Camden.
The talks between Pennsauken and county officials began last year, when the county approached the township. It wasn't until this month, however, when the township's public safety director told The Inquirer about the discussions, that the public outcry began.
Mayor Rick Taylor stressed that the township had a responsibility to review the proposal from a cost-savings perspective. The report the township received estimated that sworn personnel would cost $51 million to $57 million with a county force, as opposed to $86 million with the existing department.
The report - produced by Jose Cordero, a consultant who helped design the Camden County Metro Division that patrols Camden - also suggested that Pennsauken officers currently spend more time on lunch breaks and vehicle maintenance than on preventing crimes.
Chief Coffey criticized Cordero for not visiting his department or talking to officers in preparing his report. On Wednesday, Coffey told the Township Committee the criticism in the report simply "wasn't true."
The meeting was the second in a week that drew opponents of joining the county force.
Irene Wittenberg, 62, who said she moved to Pennsauken from Philadelphia to escape crime, said after the meeting that she would have moved had the county taken over.
"I said to my husband, 'If it goes through, we're selling,' " she said. Pennsauken's police department, she added, is "fantastic."
"I'm thrilled that the decision went the way it did."