Camden, N.J., already ranks high in crime and poverty. Tomorrow, city officials plan to implement significant layoffs. They’ll cut almost 400 workers, nearly half of them police officers and firefighters.
Standing in front of the Camden Laundromat he’s owned for about 30 years, Carmelo Villegas points to a boarded-up house across the street. It’s a drug haven, he says. Villegas says life here will be more dangerous after the layoffs.
“It’s like giving a license to these crooks to come in and try to take over,” he says.
Villegas steps inside the Laundromat where it’s warmer. He tells a harrowing story of being shot at by robbers. He says with the city and state strapped for cash, the federal government should step in.
“We been having a lot of wars – the United States – and that’s billions and billions of dollars they spending,” he says. “Why they don’t spend it here in the country defending our own people here? You know?”
There is at least one similarity between the longtime Laundromat owner and Camden Police Chief John Scott Thomson: they’re both dedicated to this city.
“I’ve spent the last 17 years of my life putting it on the line in this city,” says Thomson. “Many people I know and love reside in this city, work in this city … I’m married to this city.”
As Camden’s Police Chief, Thomson’s in charge of preventing the sort of pandemonium many residents predict.
“It appears on the layoffs we will lose 163 officers on Jan. 18. Which is approximately 45 percent of the police department. We are pushing the officers that we have remaining down and out into the field,” says Thomson.
“When it’s all said and done, the game plan that we are moving forward with, we will have 92 percent of the organization in the field. Post-layoff, our street numbers will be 3.5 percent less than what they currently are today.”
Thomson insists the city will not be more dangerous after the layoffs. He says supervisors may be responsible for overseeing more people; other changes will help the department adjust,
“If they call 911 for help, no, it will not take any longer,” he says. “We will have a differentiated response for property crimes. We will no longer send police officers for a motor vehicle fender bender that does not have injuries, where no one’s life is in jeopardy or danger of any more acts of destruction occurring, because we can’t do it all.
“We have to triage. We’re no different than an emergency room,” he says.
Not everyone is convinced.
The president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Camden, John Williamson, has his doubts.
“You cannot cover the same amount of ground at the same amount of time with less,” says Williamson. “You may be able to cover the same amount of ground, but just by the sheer reduction in numbers, the time responses are definitely going to be…longer. And if you’ve been the victim of a crime, exactly how much of a delay is OK?”
Camden Mayor Dana Redd says, with less money from the state of New Jersey, the city faces a $26.5 million budget gap. She had little choice but to push forward with the layoffs.
But she’s still hoping some jobs can be saved.
“If we receive meaningful concessions from police and fire (departments), it certainly will lessen the number of layoffs,” she says.
William Johnson, 25, has been a Camden firefighter for almost five years. He served in Iraq as a Marine and says if he’s laid off, he may re-enlist.
Sitting in his parents’ modest East Camden home where he grew-up, Johnson says it’s going be dangerous for the firefighters who are left.
“A lot more fires (are) going to get started, or happen, in abandoned places that we were trained to protect,” he says. “For who ever’s left in the city, workin’, it’s going to be very dangerous for them.”
Johnson’s father, William Johnson Sr., says even if the city gets more dangerous after the layoffs, he’s not planning to leave.
“I’m the block captain out here,” he says. “We’ve been trying to keep this section nice free from a lot of stuff happening to this part of the city.”
Johnson Sr. says if things get worse in Camden, it will only make him work harder and speak up louder, because he’s not going let Camden go down hill.