Camden, New Jersey, police: What happens to the city now that it has lost half its police force?

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Jan. 19 2011 8:00 PM

Officers Down

What happens to Camden, N.J., now that it's lost half its police force?

A Camden police cruiser. Click image to expand.
The Camden police department's staff is being slashed

Recently, the police chiefs of five major Northeastern cities gathered privately at a Philadelphia hotel to brainstorm ways for the Camden, N.J., police department to weather the impending layoff of nearly half its police force.

Among the solutions they came up with, according to Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy, were to have Camden partner with federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency; streamline the bureaucracy so each precinct operates independently rather than answering to a larger bureau; and try to build morale among the remaining officers. When Newark cut its force in 2010, McCarthy says, he looked at its thinned ranks as a positive change. "We've become like the U.S. Marine Corps, that does everything with nothing," he says.

But Camden's getting hit a lot harder than Newark. Newark lost 164 officers, or 16 percent of its police force. On Tuesday, Camden's budget crisis forced the city to lay off 168 officers, cutting its force by 46 percent. (Camden also laid off 67 firefighters and more than 100 other municipal workers.) As a result, the city's police chief says his department can't respond to traffic accidents in which no injuries are reported. Same with vandalism and petty theft. Long-term investigations will take a back seat to short-term emergencies.

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Camden may be the most drastic example of police cutbacks in recent memory. But it likely won't be the last. "Given the national financial situation at state and local levels, we may see more of these," says Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Which raises the question: What can cities like Camden, a drug-trafficking mecca billed as the second most dangerous city in America, do when faced with cuts? Is it possible for police departments to "do more with less"?

The short answer is no, says McCarthy. "I'm tired of hearing that catchphrase," he says. What they can do, though, is do less better. For example, Newark's police department trimmed its mounted and aviation units, as well as its traffic responsibilities, instead focusing on patrols and responding to calls. "We're providing virtually the same amount of police officers on patrol as before," says McCarthy. And whereas the department used to have a separate detective bureau, patrol operations bureau, and narcotics bureau, officers now report to their local precincts—a change that eliminated staff positions. In the end, McCarthy says, shrinking the department may have been an overall improvement: "If I'd thought of it before, I would have done it."

But there's a big difference between trimming 16 percent of your force and lopping it in half. "Under normal conditions, it's possible to do more with less," says Wayne Fisher, director of the Police Institute at the Rutgers School of Criminal Justice. For example, a department can hire civilians to do clerical jobs that were previously handled by sworn officers who get higher salaries and benefits. But the reductions in Camden are different. "It's a certainty there will be impact on public safety," says Fisher.

While there's no direct statistical relationship between the number of police officers on the street and the crime rate, having a larger, more flexible force means that police can focus on targeting particular types of crime. For example, Boston's Operation Ceasefire brought down that city's homicide rate in the late '90s by going after gun traffickers and reaching out to gang members. The Cincinnati Initiative To Reduce Violence offered both carrot (social services to gang members who want to get out of the game) and stick (a direct promise to gang leaders that violence will be punished). Neither of these programs would have been possible without a robust force with the flexibility to do more than just respond to calls.

Camden may have to rely on the kindness of strangers. The city has been talking with its neighbors about setting up a countywide police and fire program that can respond to emergencies. The Guardian Angels, a volunteer anticrime group, has already begun patrolling the city. McCarthy recommended that Camden pair some police units with their federal equivalents, like the narcotics team with the DEA or the warrants unit with the U.S. Marshals Service. The state of New Jersey already granted Camden $69 million in special aid last year, but it declined to provide enough to avoid layoffs.

The tragedy of Camden is that the most financially vulnerable cities have the greatest local security needs—a vicious cycle that the recession aggravated. Worse yet, the cuts could backfire, budget-wise. Not only could crime go up, which has its own social costs, but a smaller police force means more overtime, says Drew Humphries, a sociology professor at the Camden campus of Rutgers University: "That's sometimes double and triple pay."

Camden is only the tip of the iceberg, says Walker. He recommends that police chiefs across the country come up with a strategy for dealing with drastic cuts: What to do in case of a 10 percent reduction, a 20 percent reduction, and so on. But in the end, it's not up to the police departments. It's up to the politicians who fund them—or, perhaps, don't. "We simply have to raise taxes, period," says Walker. "I don't know any other way out."

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Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.