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New officers roll in as violent city of Camden phases out force

Mel Evans / AP

In this Wednesday, April 24, 2013 photo, Camden County police officers walk together near a mobile command post as they patrol in Camden, N.J.

The last remaining members of the 141-year-old police department in Camden, N.J., will retire their badges Tuesday as the city -- stricken by brutal murders and crippling poverty -- yields its streets to a new metro division of the county police force.

Gov. Chris Christie and other advocates hope that the transition to a county-run force will help drag the city of 77,000 out of a half century of post-industrial decline and decay, its annals pockmarked by open-air drug markets and sky-high murder rates. Union leaders called the new policing model, which was approved by local and state officials in August 2011, "untested" and said the move amounts to union busting.

What no one argues is that violent crime in Camden has been all too frequent and often chillingly desperate. The city recorded 67 homicides in 2012, blowing past the previous record of 58 set in 1995. In one case, a man killed a six-year-old boy. In another, a mother decapitated her 2-year-old son.

“First and foremost the number one goal of the department is to make the residents of Camden feel safer,” said Dan Keashen, a spokesman for the city. “We’re trying to ultimately stabilize the city and stabilize all the neighborhoods within the city.”

Officials have struggled for years to reduce crime in a city where more than 42 percent of people are thought to live below the poverty line. Budget cuts forced the city to lay off 168 officers in January 2011 -- 46 percent of the entire department. A spike in crime ensued

Even after some of the laid-off officers trickled back with the help of federal funds, crime rates never fully leveled off. Camden had about 270 cops to rely on as the streets turned into killing zones last year, with absentee rates reported as high as 30 percent, said Jose Cordero, a consultant with 21 years of New York City Police Department experience.

Police union contracts had gotten too expensive for the city, said Cordero, who helped design the new force. Officers could earn an 11 percent bump in their pay by working an anti-crime patrol, or 10 percent more for working a nighttime shift.

“The primary purpose of this was the city could not afford to staff up its police department to the number of officers required to have a fighting chance in what is one of the deadliest cities in America,” Cordero said.

Officers in what will be a 400-strong metro division, to be backed by 100 civilian employees, have trained on the streets of Camden alongside city police since March. About half of the regional force is expected to be comprised of members of the old Camden Police Department.

“I’m looking to see a partnership form between the metro division officers and the citizens of Camden; that partnership is crucial to prevent future crimes,” said Freeholder director Louis Capelli, Jr., who helped develop the new force.  “For the first time in decades they’ll have officers walking the beat and in their neighborhoods on bicycles.”

Camden is so far the only town or city to make use of the regional police department, which will be paid for by city property tax revenues and state municipal aid funds, Capelli said.

Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson will take control of the new force on Wednesday after retiring his city post. The force will cost Camden an estimated $62 million, the same amount the city use to pay for the smaller previous force.

Some city residents and business owners said they were pleased with the change as the new force began to roll out on streets in April.

“I’m glad they’re here. We used to have dope boys that were right there,” resident Alicia Mitchell told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Before, we were afraid to even let our kids outside.”

The teams of newly sworn officers on patrol should be one part of an effort to get Camden cleaned up and back on its feet, said resident Lawrence Perry.

“The kids don’t have nothing to do, so what else are they going to do? Stand out here, hang on the streets,” Perry told NBC Philadelphia. "They definitely got to change, because we can’t have all these killings. So something’s definitely got to change. So this is just a start.”

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