After 27 years with the Camden City Police Department, Richard Desmond has been through layoffs, labor negotiations, and general unpleasantness on the job.
As a retired sergeant, he heads up the Emerald Society drum and bagpipe band, a ceremonial outfit he says has played at funeral services for more than 400 police officers and firefighters up and down the east coast.
But burying the Camden City P.D. to make way for the countywide Metro Division is a deal he thinks will ultimately create a force that, even if larger, is no cheaper and far less experienced than the current corps of men and women policing the city.
Far from the fight-'em-there mentality of the Camden County Freeholders—which has promised that a larger force will contain the majority of crime in the county at its epicenter—Desmond believes the Metro division could put added pressure on other municipalities to keep up.
He’s equally skeptical that the cost of the county police department is something Camden City will be able to afford, even with its reduced-salary pay scale. He foresees a future where the realities of a shared-service police force will fall upon the shoulders of all Camden County taxpayers.
“When you tell [criminals] there’s no place to hide in Camden, where are they going to go?” Desmond said. “Cherry Hill, Pennsauken…
“The entire 36 towns are going to be told you’re joining this, and if you don’t join it, you’re losing state aid,” he said. “You got a hole in the dike, you can’t plug the hole, you got a bigger hole, it’s not going to work.
“You can’t print the money,” he said. “It’s not there.”
‘Why the hell would you want them back?’
One reason Desmond believes the Metro Division won’t work is because the lead-up to the dissolution of the Camden City P.D. has fostered a hotbed of retaliation, nepotism and anxiety among a group of men and women who don’t know if they’ll have a job May 1.
If the current Camden City police are unfit to do the job of the department, but the new Metro Division will welcome them all under a cost realignment, he says, either the department or the taxpayers won’t be getting the most for their money.
“You’ve been slamming the snot out of [Camden City police], besmirching their integrity, and now you’re telling them 'you can quit your job and apply to the county PD, it’s going to be better',” Desmond said.
“If these people are slugs, why the hell would you want them back?”
Even with transfers from other departments and divisions, new hires and graduating classes from the New Jersey Police Academy, Desmond says the Metro Division will be even more understaffed than the current outfit at its outset, and possibly a lot less experienced.
And morale in the new department wouldn’t improve much even if it were a mix of new and old officers, he said.
“You’re asking me to resign and reapply, and then—if you hire me—I have to train the guy who took my partner’s job,” Desmond said. “I have to teach you the streets of Camden, because you don’t know them.”
Desmond is also skeptical of the vetting process necessary to build such a force. It’s not uncommon to wade through as many as 5,000 applicants' worth of background checks, psychological evaluations, and drug screenings to hire a class of 30 to 40 officers and still struggle to find qualified candidates, he said.
“It’s the toughest job to get and the easiest to lose,” Desmond said. “That’s the only way I can describe being a police officer in the state of New Jersey.”
‘Please don’t cut my throat for those bars and stripes’
One veteran officer in the Camden P.D.—who spoke to Patch on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation for speaking publicly about the problems of the department—described some of the brutal labor practices that reportedly have been ongoing in the lead-up to the formation of the Metro Division.
Some things that have become commonplace, according to the officer, include police being regularly assigned overtime hours to jobs that used to be considered volunteer “side work.” Duty shifts at the Susquehanna Bank Center that began 12 hours before the concerts themselves; 4 officers dedicated to a security detail at Cooper Hospital; being called in to work every weekend off during the summer.
“One guy had his kids every other weekend because of a court order” and couldn't report in as requested on his days off, the source said.
“They wrote him up and he lost 10 days’ pay. You think they’re going to hire him back? We have a couple people like that. And we have those grievances pending.
“If you’re putting 100 guys guarding empty parking lots, why aren’t we putting 100 guys at hot spots? Why aren’t we putting 100 guys in the open-air drug markets in North Camden?”
Also at issue, the officer said, is the fear that organizers of the new Metro Division could appoint sergeants, lieutenants and other higher-ranking personnel as patronage rewards, especially if they are unburdened by the union contract rules that mandate testing for such positions.
“There are people who, because of personality conflicts, I know for a fact aren’t going to come back,” the source said. “Do you think that anyone who has personal lawsuits, whistleblowing lawsuits [against the department] are going to be hired?”
“You have people on the Chief’s team who have been promised promotions who are pouring it on like nobody’s business,” the source said. “You had someone at the meeting stand up and say, ‘Please don’t cut my throat for those bars and stripes like you’ve been promised.’
“We’ve been going through hell for three years.”
‘We have no choice but for it to succeed’
On the other hand, Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli, Jr. told Patch that “a fresh start” is “the only way to move forward” from the problems of a city routinely ranked the most dangerous in the nation (and, according to CQ Press, also the poorest).
“We need it to be successful,” Cappelli said. “We have no choice but for it to succeed.”
Cappelli also was quick to shoot down any notion that personal vendettas would play any role in hiring for the Metro division.
“That’s completely irrelevant,” he said. “All we care about is good, qualified police officers. We will hold not grudges. Everybody will be treated fairly.”
By Cappelli’s count, the department will “ramp up” to 401 sworn officers, 70 Class I and Class II officers, and 30 civilian aides, but “that’s not going to be immediate.”
“We’re going to need some time,” he said. “As of today we have 1,100 applicants; 125 are still Camden City police officers.”
As long as officers sign off on the Metro Division agreement by the midnight deadline, Cappelli said, they will retain their pensionable years.
“They’re entitled to wherever they are under the current [Camden City] contract,” he said. “We’re moving forward. I’m confident we’ll have no problem staffing the department.”
Camden County spokesperson Dan Keashen said he couldn’t comment on the working environment of the Camden City police department, but added that the Camden F.O.P. “allowed half its workforce to walk out the door because they weren’t able to reach an agreement with the city in 2011”—implying that any labor negotiations with that union would have yielded equally dim prospects of financial concessions from a department that has been working without a contract for the last 5 years.
Keashen also asserted that although “we’re coming up with a funding structure” for the Metro Division, “the city and the state will continue to pay for Camden City [police operations].
“At the end of the day, [Camden is] going to be paying for what [it] can afford now,” Keashen said. “They have $65 million to afford 240 [officers],” he said. “The budget moving forward is $65 million for 401 plus 100 civilians."
The success of the Metro Division would usher in a more viable commercial atmosphere to the city of Camden, Keashen said, with greater public safety paving the way for new business opportunities that would in turn help fund the department.
“When we start to see companies coming in [to the city], employing city residents, and then paying directly to the tax base, that’s what’s going to be occurring as we move forward,” Keashen said.
“As far as sustainability is concerned, this department is going to operate, and it’s going to make the city safe in perpetuity,” he said.
However, Desmond is frustrated by the idea that the reorganization necessarily became a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. By comparison, he points out that the regionalization of fire departments in Hudson County was a multi-year process achieved with a slow period of attrition through retirements.
“You had 40 chiefs, 40 deputy chiefs, [several] battalion chiefs. The county merely waited 7 years until all the senior guys retired,” Desmond said.
The officer who spoke anonymously concurred, telling Patch that the union had long been prepared to make labor concessions to preserve its department.
With a deadline proposition that demands that current Camden City officers abandon all pending litigation against the county and the department as a condition of accepting the deal, it’s no sure thing which way the vote will break.
“They tore this police department up,” the source said. “They could have gotten whatever they wanted for new hires.
“They could have gotten everything they wanted.”