CAMDEN — Citing a spike in homicides and an absentee rate of nearly 30 percent within the city’s police department, Camden Mayor Dana Redd on Wednesday called on all available officers to show up for duty, including police union leaders who have been on paid leave from normal police assignments.
“We need to ensure that we have every uniformed police officer, including the union leadership, patrolling our neighborhoods and business corridors,” Redd said in the statement, noting that police union leaders had previously raised concerns that their members were tired and overworked.
“Asking all available uniformed police officers to come into work during their shift should help alleviate some of the absenteeism and overtime issues that are affecting the department,” Redd stated.
Camden’s police and fire union presidents have for years been paid their normal salary from the city while being exempt from performing traditional police or fire duties. City officials said Redd’s order also applies to the fire department and its two union presidents.
Police union presidents John Williamson and Kevin Wilkes criticized the move as retaliation to their ongoing efforts to block a controversial plan to dismantle the city’s police department in favor of a county-run force.
Redd announced at a council meeting Tuesday night that the city could begin filing layoff notices for its current officers by the end of the month as part of the plan to join a Camden Metro Division of a county police department.
“It sounds like retaliation and a clear attempt to keep us from doing our jobs,” Williamson said of the union’s efforts to block the county policing plan. “It’s clearly retaliation because I’m speaking out.”
Williamson, president of the department’s rank and file officers, has been active in opposing the county police plan, helping to organize a petition to block the plan as well as separate litigation. Williamson said late Wednesday evening he had contacted his attorney about Redd’s call he return to work.
Both Williamson and Wilkes said they were not contacted by Redd or Camden Police Chief Scott Thomson on Wednesday and said they had not been given notice of a time when they were supposed to report for work. Thomson did not respond to a request for comment.
Williamson, a detective, has been on paid leave as union president for about 10 years. Wilkes, a sergeant, has been on leave for about three years since taking over as president of the superior officer’s union. The pair made approximately $180,000 combined in base salaries in 2011, according to public records.
Redd’s announcement comes on the heels of one of the city’s most violent months. With 13 homicides in July and 39 through Aug. 7, the city is on pace to eclipse 1995’s record mark of 58 killings.
In addressing City Council members Tuesday, Redd emphasized the need for the added police provided through the planned 400 member county police force.
“We need to assure our residents that all life matters and that we are serious about making our city safe and expanding the number of boots on the ground,” Redd said. “The senseless acts of violence that are occurring in our city affects every one of us.”
Camden currently has about 250 active duty officers, more than in the months after steep layoffs in January 2011, but far fewer than the ranks of 400 officers of a few years ago.
While Wilkes and Williamson have stressed the need for more officers, Wilkes on Wednesday questioned the notion that the recalling of Williamson and himself could have an impact.
“One sergeant and one detective are not going to solve the crime problem,” Wilkes said. “It’s obviously retaliation. It’s obviously trying to stifle us.”
While city officials discredited the claim, Wilkes said an order to return to work would violate the pair’s contract.
And while they aren’t performing actual police duties, Wilkes maintained he and Williamson are doing real work.
“We are working,” he said. “We’re just not working to what the mayor and what everyone seems to want. We’re working for what our membership wants.”
The practice of paying salaries and benefits for union officers on leave from government jobs came under fire in a State Commission of Investigation Report released in May. The report, which cited examples from Camden, stated it had found “significant and questionable variations” in payment practices across the state.
According to the SCI, government-paid leave for public-union representatives cost more than $30 million in salaries and medical benefits during the review period. This finding was drawn from a sample of more than 120 school districts, 17 municipalities, all 21 counties and 12 departments of state government.
From The Courier-Post