LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Camden, New Jersey has long been considered one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Over the past few years, budget cuts have forced police layoffs. Now, the city is considering even more dramatic steps.
From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Fiedler reports Camden leaders want to replace the city's police force with one operated by the county.
ELIZABETH FIEDLER, BYLINE: With Camden on pace to break a record for homicides and shootings this year, many in the crime-ravaged city say something has to change.
MARC RIONDINO: The status quo is not working with our current policing model.
FIEDLER: Camden City Attorney Marc Riondino says it's time for Camden to take a new approach to public safety, with a new police force operated by the county.
RIONDINO: We have explored our options and the best model for us is shared services. In Camden, it's well known we have an uptick in violence. We have to enter into a new paradigm and make residents feel safe, and that's the only reason we're doing this.
FIEDLER: Camden City Council President Frank Moran, who was born and raised in Camden, says even with financial help, Camden's struggling to protect itself.
FRANK MORAN: We are under a transitional aid agreement with the state that every year that the state will reduce our aid. And it's what the governor has implemented and unfortunately we have to live with. So we have to do everything in our power to be creative.
FIEDLER: Some Camden residents are speaking out against the plan. At a rally outside Camden Fraternal Order of Police headquarters, opponents of the dismantling gathered to protest. Ulysses Delgado expressed his opinion with signs he taped to a truck.
ULYSSES DELGADO: This one right here says: Stop the Killing and Stop the Shooting and Robberies and Save Our City.
FIEDLER: Longtime Camden resident Larry Shaw is also worried about getting rid of the city police force.
LARRY SHAW: Not too long ago, we was considered the worst city in crime in the nation. What did they do? Giving up their cops. And the cops that are here now are more than just cops. I mean, you can talk to them. They know the people, you know, they're your friends and they protect you.
FIEDLER: Opponents of the plan, including the city's police union, have filed an appeal to stop the local force from being dismantled. The current Camden Police Department is unionized. Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen says since the new force will be an entirely new entity, the old contract terms will not apply. But officers in the new force can form their own union and will be able to negotiate a union contract.
Scot DeCristofaro is a spokesperson for the Camden Fraternal Order of Police.
SCOTT DECRISTOFARO: This is a creative way to break a union and break the financial obligations you have to a union.
FIEDLER: Jose Cordero is a consultant who's been hired to develop and implement the new police force.
JOSE CORDERO: A lot of labor contracts have been negotiated over many, many, many years. And often times, you know, they reflect years past and the realities of years past, and not necessarily the challenges both in terms of economic challenges and public safety challenges that Camden city faces.
FIEDLER: Cordero says the plan is to hire more officers with about the same budget. One way the regional force could save money, Cordero says, is by hiring civilians to do work that's now done by police.
CORDERO: If you don't need a gun and if you don't need a badge to do that job, then you shouldn't be doing it.
FIEDLER: While the economy has prompted police departments around the country to look at similar moves, legislative obstacles and other challenges have kept many from actually taking the plunge. So far, the city of Camden is the only member to join the regional force. No other New Jersey communities have signed on. The price tag for the new force is still uncertain, but Camden leaders says they've got to move forward, even if they have to go it alone.
For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler.
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