CAMDEN, NJ – Camden police on Thursday emphatically rejected what the county had said was its final offer of terms to consider hiring them onto a new county-run force that would replace the 141-year-old city department.
The 142-62 vote, in a secret ballot, followed months of contention over the planned force. Officials vowed they would proceed without holding any more talks with the city police union.
Some rank-and-file officers and city activists, who have called the county plan an attempt to break the police union, hailed the vote as a rebuke.
City and Camden County officials described it as a self-defeating act on the part of the officers, all of whom were served last month with layoff notices.
Officials had said a favorable vote would enable them to “consider for hiring” all current Camden officers rather than just a maximum of 49 percent. Without a new contract, the county said, hiring more than that proportion would trigger the terms of more generous previous contracts it wants to shed.
County officials had set Thursday as the deadline for the officers to accept the terms, which were to be the foundation of a new contract.
During an afternoon news conference at City Hall, city and county officials, in irritated and sometimes sharply personal tones, criticized the union leadership, particularly Fraternal Order of Police president John Williamson.
“Today was no time to be obstinate,” Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said. “This was a time for saving jobs and to face reality that the Camden County Police Department is moving forward with or without them.”
Mayor Dana L. Redd said: “The plane is on the tarmac, and we are about to take off for a new paradigm of public safety.”
“This boat has left the dock,” said Assemblyman Gilbert “Whip” Wilson (D., Camden), a former city police officer.
But Gary Frazier, an activist who fears members of an outside force would not be familiar with the city, said the vote signified that residents “aren’t done fighting.”
City officers had until 8 p.m. on Thursday to apply to the new force, and at least one officer who voted down the county offer also indicated interest in applying.
“I started my career as a Camden city officer and I’d like to retire as one,” said the detective, speaking on condition of anonymity, who voted against the county’s terms.
At deadline, a total of 156 Camden officers had applied to the new force, county spokesman Dan Keashen said, including 51 on Thursday.
Williamson said that members had found the county’s proposal vague and that officials answered only a handful of the questions his members had submitted.
He said there were several inconsistencies in the proposal, including with the early-retirement package offered to city officers with at least 20 years in the state pension system.
“If they really wanted this go to through, and they really wanted to be fair and hire everybody, then they would have answered the questions,” Williamson said in an interview.
Keashen said county attorneys answered “every question of substance.”
Many Camden officers also have expressed dismay that the county did not make an ironclad offer to hire all of them to the new force.
County and city officials have said they want the nucleus of the force to be made up of Camden officers, but won’t commit to a number.
The officials accused Williamson of misleading his members.
“Today, the FOP followed the advice of Williamson . . . and, as a result, dozens of officers will be facing unemployment and potential financial catastrophe this spring,” said Cappelli, who also called the police union chief “a liar.”
Williamson countered, saying, “Cappelli spent more time attempting to attack and defame me than he did answering the questions.”
The new force’s metro division, which is to patrol Camden, is projected to have 400 officers – making it larger than the cash-strapped city’s current force of nearly 260. Officials expect savings obtained from cuts in benefits to help fund the larger force.
Suburban towns have balked at joining the force.
Cappelli announced that about 50 newly recruited officers were to start their 10-week training in March.
Officials said they expected the new force to be unionized eventually, but not right away. Under the terms the officers spurned, the FOP would have continued to represent rank-and-file officers of the new force – if the union agreed not to fight the proposed force in court.
Cappelli said the county was done negotiating with the FOP.
Williamson said the union was still open to talks.
“For them to draw a line in the sand simply because Cappelli has some type of animosity to myself, he’s not thinking about what’s in the best interest of the city.”