CAMDEN, NJ – Residents, community activists and police officers protested Saturday outside the Camden Police Administration Building, against county and city officials moving forward on a plan to fire the current police force and replace it with a countywide department.
The approximately 60 protesters gathered at the intersection of Haddon Avenue and Federal Street were joined by Camden Councilman Brian Coleman, who so far is the only city official to come out against the plan.
Coleman described the plan to disband the current 272-officer department as “union busting.”
“Our police department is a good police department, and it should remain in place,” he said. “It’s people in the administration that need to be removed before things can begin running better.”
Coleman argued officers are currently deployed in the wrong areas, and that overtime hours are being intentionally increased to unsustainable levels.
“How can you be combating crime when you’re out working a concert instead of fighting crime?” said Coleman. “Everyone wants to blame the police department, but they’re not the problem — not the rank and file, at least.”
The protest was organized of several community activists, brought together by the Camden Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1. One of them, Carlette Roberts, who has lived half her life in Camden, first as a Rutgers University student in her 20s, and again later when she moved back to the city in early 2000.
She spent the intervening period working for an environmental program for the city of San Jose, Calif. She stated city officials in Camden should take a lesson from her former employers.
“People were never treated like this in San Jose — they were never told they couldn’t vote on something, instead of just saying ‘This is how it’s going to be,’” said Roberts, who added that she was mugged in July 2011, shortly after a series of police layoffs. “This plan is a disaster in the making. The police that are here are working very hard, and personally I think this is a terrible thing to do to the people who risk their lives every day.”
The New Jersey Civil Service Commission earlier this month cleared the way for Camden County to being hiring police officers for the Camden Metro Division, which officials say will replace the city’s current force.
Included in the PILOT program application approved by the state was the provision that potential hires not be required to take a civil service test, which county officials stated could shorten the process by a year.
According to Camden County spokesman Dan Keashan, the City of Camden is currently the countywide police department’s “only client,” which means the county is at this time only looking to fill the 401 positions on its proposed metro division.
He added that it is the county’s wish to rehire as many of the current Camden police officers as possible.
“The focus right now is on Camden, and I think the county has been very transparent about that — there is a desperate need for resources and capacity,” said Keashan this month. “We want the best quality officers and the experience that officers on the current force possess.”
However, FOP officials have argued that the Superior Court’s decision to waive civil service requirements tramples on workers’ rights. In addition, they are disputing the county’s claims that only 49 percent of the current police department can be rehired for the countywide force.
“The City of Camden needs officers who have experience in the City of Camden,” said one officer attending Saturday’s protest. He declined to give his name, stating he would be reprimanded to speaking out.
“The city needs jobs and it needs police officers,” he said. “They should keep the civil service intact, and get local people the jobs that they need here.
“There’s going to be hell to pay if the officers they get don’t know the city and the residents here.”