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Camden, NJ: Nation’s Second-Most Dangerous City Lays Off Nearly Half Police Force to Close Budget Gap

01.19.11

With many state budgets are deeply in debt, the notion of cutting spending seems like a welcomed choice in balancing the budget. At least until the reality of just what that means comes to fruition.

While we tend to think of long lines at inefficient post offices as the symbol of just how wasteful, lazy, and unnecessary government workers can be, also on the state’s payroll are police officers and firefighters. Both of which all of us want at the ready when we need them to be.

Case in point: Camden, NJ. Already a city struggling before the recession — I was there once and can vouch for its impoverished neighborhood and dangerous streets; a friend was even jumped and robbed by four people while there — now has fallen on even harder times:

About 335 workers, representing one-sixth of the local government work force, lost their jobs, according to Mayor Dana Redd. It was worst in the public safety departments, where nearly half the police force and close to one-third of the city’s firefighters were laid off.

While there are likely elements in the government bureaucracy that could use trimming – or slashing even – to curb spending during this economic downturn, it doesn’t seem like the issue that caused the bloat in the budget was too many police officers. Especially not in the city of Camden, which held the dubious honor of being the second-most dangerous city in the nation in 2009 — a slight improvement after having won the title the previous two years running.

Or perhaps it was:

Kelly Francis, a local government watchdog and president of the city’s NAACP branch, says the city should have been shedding its staff for decades.

He says, for instance, that it was a mistake to use federal grants in the 1990s to bulk up the police department as the city’s population shrunk. The federal funds eventually dried up, leaving the city to pay costs it couldn’t afford.

“It seems to me there’s an entitlement mentality in the city of Camden,” Francis said. “It’s been at least 40 years that the state’s been bailing out the city.”

An entitlement mentality? Oh yeah: those whiny residents of one of the most dangerous cities in the entire country wanting a more bolstered police presence. How dare they! Don’t they know we’re in the middle of a recession?

On the other hand, it seems that the Camden police force was incredibly high compared to the acceptable average of 1.5 – 2 officers per 1,000 residents, clocking in at 4.7 officers per 1,000 residents prior to the massive layoff, which brings them down to 2.6 officers per 1,000 — still above the average. Then again, being at or near the top of the dangerous cities list means probably needing more than just an average ratio of cops to people.

Camden Mayor Dana Redd blamed the unions for the layoffs:

Redd blamed the public safety employee cuts on their unions, saying they have not been willing to make job-saving concessions or accept the reality that the state government will no longer bail out the city as it has for the past two generations.

The union countered:

The Fraternal Order of Police said the deal would have included a 20 percent pay cut. Union officials said they were open to wage freezes and furlough days.

No other details were given so it’s hard to know exactly which one to get behind. No matter how to slice it, a 20 percent pay cut is massive. Especially given that in this economy many people are stretched even thinner — to lose 1/5th of your pay can actually make it unaffordable for you to stay at that job.

It’s a lose-lose situation, one that no one can truly be happy about. On one hand, you can balance the budget but, in doing so, you layoff 168 police officers in a crime-ridden city. That also means that those officers will now be without work in the already poverty-stricken town across the river from Philadelphia. These officers will most likely go on unemployment, being another drain on government – just not on the city of Camden. And less money in their pockets also means less money going into the local economy. And thus: the cycle continues. While government gets “punished” for their out-of-control spending (or by just getting hit like nearly every other city and state because of the deep recession), Americans lose their jobs.

Seems like it’s going to get worse before it all gets better. And there are no easy answers and even fewer winners in this whole scenario.

Photo courtesy of dougtone’s Flickr Photostream.

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2 comments

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