One of the most dangerous cities in the U.S. is getting rid of its police department.
Amid what they call a “public safety crisis,” officials in Camden, N.J., plan to disband the city's 141-year-old police department and replace it with a non-union division of the Camden County Police.
Camden city officials have touted the move as necessary to combat the city’s growing financial and safety problems. The entire 267-member police department will be laid off and replaced with a newly reformatted metro division, which is projected to have some 400 members. It will serve only the city of Camden starting in early 2013.
“It’s not a money-saver, it’s living within the budget you’ve got to get more boots on the ground,” Camden County spokesperson Joyce Gabriel told NBC News. “There has been an uptick in violence this year, and the city decided to go with the county’s police department.”
Camden isn’t the first cash-strapped city to be faced with the decision to eliminate or merge its police department.
Bernard Melekian, director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office, told NBC News that as communities around the country recover from the recession, police mergers are part of a new reality that will likely continue through the next decade.
“This really reflects a much broader issue, which is that the economy is changing the delivery of police services profoundly,” Melekian said, “and those agencies undergoing regionalization and consolidation – in particular, smaller ones that are financially distressed – are going to have to find another way of delivering those core services.”
'Recipe for disaster'
Given Camden’s exceptionally high rate of violence (the city recorded this year’s 41st homicide earlier this month), city police officers in danger being laid off say the transition is risky at best.
“We’re concerned, we’re definitely concerned,” Camden Fraternal Order of Police President John Williamson told NBC News. “You’re going to create a police department and staff it with people who are unfamiliar with the city and say, ‘Go ahead and fight crime.’ That’s a recipe for disaster.”
Afflicted by homelessness, drug trafficking, prostitution, robbery and violence, Camden has consistently ranked high among the top 10 most dangerous cities in the U.S. since 1998, according to Morgan Quitno Press, a research firm that compiles statistical data on cities. In 2010, Camden had the highest crime rate in the U.S., with 2,333 violent crimes per 100,000 people, more than five times the national average.
Camden Mayor Dana Redd underscored the importance of the new, regionalized police force in her proposal for the next fiscal year’s budget. “The senseless acts of violence occurring in our city affect every one of us,” Redd said in a statement. “We need to assure our residents that all life matters and that we are serious about making our city safe by expanding the number of boots on the ground. This decision to move towards a Camden Metro Division is being made solely on what is right for our residents – nothing more, nothing less.”