Pennsauken looks into regional policing agreement with Camden County

 A Camden County police officer on the radio in a squad car. (NewsWorks file photo)

A Camden County police officer on the radio in a squad car. (NewsWorks file photo)

Since Camden dissolved its city police force in May 2013 in favor of a county department, its crime rate has dropped significantly while it has cut payroll costs and added additional officers.

So, when Camden County officials began spreading the word about saving other neighboring towns money by offering their police services, Pennsauken Mayor Rick Taylor said it was his financial responsibility to look at the numbers.

“We’re not doing anything clandestine,” said Taylor. “At this point, it’s just a pipe dream, nothing is assured.”

Pennsauken officials received a preliminary report from Camden County last week. It estimated that by dissolving its current police force and adopting the county model, the South Jersey town could save $4.8 million to $5.8 million annually.

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However, that savings would come at a price: Cutting the current Pennsauken force by 10 officers and lowering salaries.

“The report is obviously a sales pitch, and, without question, suggests that cuts would be in order, but it also uses erroneous data to arrive at that conclusion,” said Pennsauken Police Capt. Thomas Connor. “With regard to the report, I’ve never been contacted. I believe our police department was studied from a distance. To my knowledge no officer was ever spoken to about the operations, about this police department.”

Connor said he’s concerned that making cuts wouldn’t allow the same level of service to residents.

“While we definitely acknowledge the news coming out of Camden regarding the success they’re reporting, I would say the residents of Pennsauken are used to a level of service that this police department provides on a routine basis in an exemplary way,” Connor said.

Camden Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli, who helped establish the county force, said department resources would remain separate between the two cities.

County officials believe that crime should be fought on regional basis, he said, which in this case means it’s best fought by a county police force.

“What we found in Camden was a way to provide a very good service at a price cheaper than what otherwise might exist,” said Cappelli. “That’s something taxpayers should be interested in. Can a government provide a proven service at a lower cost, and if so, is that the direction with which we should move?”

There has been plenty of criticism around the dissolving of the old city police department. But those backing the county model said the old union contract from the city department could not be amended enough to correctly police New Jersey’s most violent city. Under the new system, the force now has 359 officers; the city department had about 260.

And the new county policing model is not without issue. A report this week by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that the department is facing a major turnover issue — in the two years since the county department took over, nearly 120 officers have left the force with 90 of those officers resigning.

The investigation cited many anonymous sources claiming poor pay and strict rules caused the police  to leave.

Cappelli said problems with low salaries and a great deal of department turnover would have to be addressed as neighboring towns came aboard with the system.

“The other item impacting our number is the fact that other municipalities are learning that our officers are well trained, well prepared, and they’ve become a very valuable commodity across the state,” said Cappelli.

The Pennsauken police department, under the guidance of local Federation of Police union Garden State Lodge 3, recently extended its contract with the township through 2018, but Cappelli said that deal could be overruled by township officials.

“We haven’t even talked to our town solicitor to the extent of if we were to change or try to get out of the contract before 2018,” said Taylor. “That is so far down the road, it’s not even funny as far as we’re concerned.”

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