Technical matters hinder move to put Camden police issue on the ballot

Activists in Camden have been circulating a petition that would allow residents to vote on a proposed major shift in local law enforcement — whether their city’s police department should be abolished and replaced by a Camden County force.

As of now, the power to make that change rests with those who support the measure, namely the city government.

Activists opposing the change, including Camden’s Fraternal Order of Police and police officers’ union, think that power would be better suited in the hands of the city’s residents. With this goal in mind they started gathering the 970 necessary signatures to put the measure on November’s general election ballot.

But, earlier this week, even though the group far exceeded the minimum number of signatures, their petition was stopped in its tracks by the city clerk’s office.

Camden Clerk Luis Pastoriza said the group’s petition failed to adhere to two legal standards.

First, in order to organize a petition, a group needs to create an official five-member committee of petitioners. The five names must be listed on each ‘to-be-signed’ sheet.

Second, in order for signatures to count, the individual circulators of the petition must take the time to get each of their pages properly notarized.

On both these counts, Pastoriza said, the activists came up short. Told of the deficiencies Feb. 17, they were given 10 days to make adjustments. When that time limit passed Monday without correction, the petition was formally rejected.

Starting over

Now, if the activists still plan to put the measure to a citywide vote, they’ll have to start from scratch.

That doesn’t seem to bother petition organizer and former Camden City Councilman Ali Sloan El in the least. He says the experience is part of a learning curve that will only make his group stronger.

“First time was like you’re warming up. We were practicing. We were stretching,” Sloan El said. “The game hasn’t started yet.”

Supporters of the petition claim that Camden is best served by a police-force familiar with and dedicated to Camden, not the surrounding county.

Camden F.O.P. president John Williamson says, ultimately, replacing city cops with a county force is a step in the wrong direction for a city that’s already in an extremely tenuous public-safety situation.

“They want to take an unproven, experimental theory, and utilize that theory to put officers on the street that will not be familiar with the demographics of the city -— the many different cultures and ethnicities in the city. And, ultimately, the residents [would be] at risk,” said Williamson.

Proponents of the takeover -— including Camden Mayor Dana Redd, Gov. Chris Christie, and the Camden County freeholders — say having a county-sponsored force would put more cops on the street. They say their plan will increase Camden’s officers from 270 to roughly 400. Any officers that don’t already have urban experience, they say, will be trained.

The heart of the matter

Although both sides claim to have the best interests of Camden’s residents in mind, the issue seems to grow predominantly out of another common denominator: police contracts.

Current Camden police officers (represented through their union and fraternal order) rightly fear that if this transition becomes a reality, they’ll receive a major hit to their wallets. At best, they would fight to regain what would essentially be their same jobs —- only to discover a reduced salary and benefit package on the other side. At worst, they’d join the unemployed.

For supporters of the measure, transitioning to a county-based force is essentially an end-around way of escaping what they see as exorbitant police contracts foolishly agreed to by past city governments.

The “Camden County” force would, as stands, actually only service the city of Camden itself. Other county municipalities such as Gloucester, Collingswood and Berlin could potentially sign up, but so far there have been no takers.

Moreover, the funds that would support the county force would come from the same tax base the current system relies on -— not at all from the more affluent neighboring municipalities in the county.

Essentially, the transition aims to put more boots on the ground by changing the name on the badge, and then paying the wearers of those boots less.

It’s no secret. Director of the Camden County Freeholders Louis Cappelli Jr. admits that they plan to “restructure the work arrangements and work contracts of the officers.”

Cappelli maintains, though, that there’s nothing sinister about this. To him, “it’s a way of addressing the public safety need of Camden City -— to more than double the amount of officers on the streets of Camden.”

He also adds that part of the rationale of the proposed transition has been driven by the state’s reduction of aid to the city.

“What Gov. Christie has told the city of Camden is, ‘There are no more blank checks.’ We need to begin reducing expenses where we can and providing better services,” he said.

Past, present and future

In January of 2011, the city laid off 168 police officers in an effort to close a budget gap. Later, 100 were hired back.

During that year, Camden -— a city of 77,000 —- experience a rise in the number of homicides from 37 to 49.

Moving forward, even if the F.O.P. succeeds in getting the measure on the ballot (which, at least as far as signatures go, is a foregone conclusion), government officials are confident that the city will vote in its favor.

Until then, either way citizens would plan on voting, one thing remains sure — Camden’s 2012 murder numbers are likely to be on the rise.

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