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Wracked with crime and despair, Camden, New Jersey to disband police force

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 24th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Among America's poorest and most crime-ridden cities, Camden, New Jersey is on the verge of dismantling its police department. City officials hope to start fresh with a new force run by the county government.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Unless the union reaches a deal with the county, no more than 49 percent of the city's current officers could join the new force, with pay cuts.

Officials say there are about 170 drug markets operating in this city of 77,000 near Philadelphia. There are more than 700 people here on parole and 600 registered sex offenders.

Camden's murder rate is shocking. Newark attracted national attention for a record number of homicides in 2007. Newark's murder rate that year - 37 per 100,000 residents - was still well below Camden's 53 per 100,000 that year.

There have been 47 murders reported this year. The city record of 58 was set in 1995. Two recent killings have become tragic symbols of the drugs and violence that plague Camden. Two children, ages 2 and 6, were killed allegedly by people authorities believe were high on PCP, aka "angel dust."

Camden has the nation's highest poverty rate with more than two residents in five living in poverty. The big factories that once made Camden an industrial boom town have been gone for more than 25 years.

Revitalization efforts over the past 10 years focused on expanding hospitals and universities, which brought some life to downtown but had a less discernible effect on neighborhoods. Even the best-kept blocks have abandoned homes.

The city government conducted massive layoffs in January of 2011, including nearly half the police department and about one-third of the firefighters.

All the laid-off public safety workers have since been called back, but their numbers have fallen through attrition. In this once bustling city, there are only 270 police officers, down from 450 in 2005 and 368 the day before the layoffs.

Police Chief Scott Thomson points to crime statistics for the two years before the layoffs that showed the crime declining. It was on account of intensive community policing efforts, he says, which came about when detectives were reassigned from desk jobs to patrols. The force was then able to be more proactive.

With the smaller force, he said, walking and biking beats are used more sparingly.

Four hundred properly deployed officers could effectively patrol the city, according to a recent report. The county plan aims to have 401 officers and more than 60 civilians, up from fewer than 20 now.

The civilians would do administrative work and some crime-scene investigations, freeing up officers. Thomson says that's what can make a real difference in the city. "It's very difficult for open-air drug markets to exist when a police officer is walking the beat on that corner," he said.

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