Camden Can’t Afford Its Police and Its Union Any More

Today’s blog post has little ‘analysis’; all I need do is point. Perfect storms should be ‘admired’ from a distance. When I’m done, let the chants of ‘USA! USA! USA!’ ring out, loud and proud.

So, let us get started. Here is a little piece of news: Camden, NJ has decided to disband its police department:

The reason, officials say, is that generous union contracts have made it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street. So in November, Camden, which has already had substantial police layoffs, will begin terminating the remaining 273 officers and give control to a new county force. The move, officials say, will free up millions to hire a larger, nonunionized force of 400 officers to safeguard the city, which is also the nation’s poorest.

These one hundred and twenty-seven additional, cheaper officers will now presumably make a significant difference in fighting crime in a city reckoned the most dangerous in America. (Did I mention it was also the poorest?) Before their arrival, things had reached a point where

[T]he police in Camden — population 77,000 — are already so overloaded they no longer respond to property crimes or car accidents that do not involve injuries.

There are few tears being shed for the police department in Camden because:

[M]any residents have come to resent a police force they see as incompetent, corrupt and doing little to make their streets safe….When police officers arrested a person suspected of dealing drugs in a house on a narrow street in North Camden last year, residents set upon their cars and freed the prisoner.

Camden’s move is part of a trend:

The new effort follows a push by New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, a Republican, and Democratic leaders in the Legislature to encourage cities and towns to regionalize government services. They maintain that in a new era of government austerity, it is no longer possible for each community to offer a full buffet of government services, especially with a new law prohibiting communities from raising property taxes more than 2 percent a year.

The police union’s contract terms are seen as the problem:

[O]fficers earn an additional 4 percent for working a day shift, and an additional 10 percent for the shift starting at 9:30 p.m. They earn an additional 11 percent for working on a special tactical force or an anticrime patrol. Salaries range from about $47,000 to $81,000 now, not including the shift differentials or additional longevity payments of 3 percent to 11 percent for any officer who has worked five years or more. Officials say they anticipate salaries for the new force will range from $47,000 to $87,000. In 2009, as the economy was putting a freeze on municipal budgets even in well-off communities, the police here secured a pay increase of 3.75 percent. And liberal sick time and family-leave policies have created an unusually high absentee rate: every day, nearly 30 percent of the force does not show up.

Urban blight; shrinking budgets; rampant crime; terrible police-community relations; Camden has it all. Yes, indeed, drastic action seems necessary and unions and their contracts seem like the right place to start. They always are.

As we move on, we should note that things weren’t always so bad economically:

Camden, in the shadow of Philadelphia’s glimmering towers, once had a thriving industrial base — a shipyard, Campbell Soup and RCA plants along the waterfront. About 60,000 jobs were lost when those companies moved or shifted them elsewhere.

Or even crime-wise:

Camden reorganized its Police Department in 2008 and had a lower homicide rate for two years. Then the recession forced layoffs, reducing the force by about 100 officers. [Links in original; one hundred, I believe, is twenty seven less than the one hundred and twenty seven to be added after this disbandment.]

 But I can’t imagine that any of that history has anything to do with the current crisis.

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