As police and fire layoffs become real, Camden braces

What happens when you lay off nearly half of the police in one of the most dangerous cities in America? Residents in Camden, N.J., will soon know the answer.

Yesterday, the city across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, said goodbye to about 400 workers — nearly half of them police officers and firefighters.

Rutgers Law student Megan Teesdale and a friend are chatting in a coffee shop across from City Hall while icy rain falls outside. The 27-year-old and her friend agree — they feel pretty safe in Camden, for now.

“I hope that Rutgers will find a way to pull what they need to around campus–like the immediate areas–for the students that go mainly for law students going back and forth to court and going back and forth to the city lot where we have to park,” said Teesdale. ” But if the school didn’t do that, I think I might feel more unsafe.”

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Customers file in and out, a soap opera plays on TV, the mood’s pretty calm.

But earlier, at the Fraternal Order of Police building near 11th and Federal Streets in Camden, tensions and emotions ran high. Dozens of firefighters wearing their gear chatted with police officers about being laid off. They discussed life after the layoffs in much darker terms.

Firefighters’ union President Ken Chambers says it’s one of the worst days in the history of Camden.

“Unfortunately what we’re setting ourselves up for is another 9/11,” Chambers said. “By putting ourselves in this position with the public safety, that we’re setting ourselves up for another tragedy that we definitely can’t afford.”

Chambers says he’s telling the firefighters to hold their heads high.

“We’re still going to service the residents as much as we can but unfortunately the Mayor and the city administration is putting us in a bad position to do that,” he said.

The union isn’t the only one shoving blame elsewhere.

Camden Mayor Dana Redd says the city’s $26.5 million budget gap requires difficult decisions: including the layoffs.

“We’ve seen reductions in public workers across this nation, across this state, and yes it’s had its impact in the city of Camden,” said Redd. “But if the unions work along with this administration, we can save jobs, and we can put people back to work.”

Camden Police Chief John Scott Thomson says it’s been difficult to see the officers go. He says steps are being taken to keep the city as safe as possible.

“You will see FBI jackets out on the streets doing corner sweeps with us, just a deviation of the traditional role of operating at 30,000 feet.” said Thomson. “We have Camden County Park Police that are riding in squad cars with our police officers. We have the same thing with the New Jersey State Police. We have asked for the assistance of our partners and they have stepped up to the plate.”

Even if law enforcement finds a way to keep Camden safe, some lives are going to change dramatically.

Back at FOP headquarters, Camden police officers are lining up boots in front of the building. One for each laid-off officer. Jay Marie Torres holds her 10-year-old daughter close to her in the icy wet weather. Torres and her fiance are both Camden police officers, and both are being laid off.

“There’s not gonna be much of an income coming into the home now,” said Torres.

Her fiance, Raymond Rusi, stands next to her quietly watching the line of boots grow.

“I guess we gotta cope with it. After all these years of service I’m getting kicked out of my job,” said Rusi.

Torres quickly jumps in. “I didn’t think they were going to do it. The crime is so bad as it is. You’ve got that officer that got killed in Lakewood and the guy ran straight here to Camden. And I was watching in the news last night about the strangler in Philadelphia and i was like, ‘I bet you he’s in Camden also.’ They all run to Camden. It’s real bad out here.”

Her 10-year-old daughter Brendalis says she sent President Obama a letter asking him to help get the police and fire jobs back. “I told him this: that if he was fired how you gonna pay your bills? Wouldn’t you need help? Wouldn’t you be mad if you got fired?”

She says there’s a lot of crime in Camden already. Brendalis says she remembers hearing gunshots in the past, and being afraid.

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