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Camden, New Jersey, is one of the most dangerous cities in America. Year after year, it ranks high in murders, rapes, assaults and robberies. But Camden is too poor to hire more police officers, so it's doing something unusual to solve the problem.

As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, the city is firing its entire police department. The county government can then replace it with a bigger, cheaper force.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: I asked Camden City Police Chief Scott Thomson to drive me through the toughest sections of Camden. He said, take your pick. Every one of its 9 square miles has problems.

CHIEF SCOTT THOMSON: This is North Camden. This is where I started out as a cop.

CHANG: Wow. We're driving for not even a half hour and then all of a sudden, Thomson is flooring the gas pedal. We're hurtling to something he's just seen in the distance. A man in a white jacket is fleeing and a woman starts racing to her car. When Thomson arrives, the keys are already in the ignition. The woman asks him, what did you see?

THOMSON: What do you think I saw?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Me trying to get drugs.

THOMSON: Say that again.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Me trying to get drugs.

THOMSON: You're correct. I did see you try to get drugs.

CHANG: The woman admits to Thomson she was trying to buy heroin. She won't look him in the eye.

THOMSON: Track marks all over your arms?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah. I'm in a methadone clinic, though.

THOMSON: It's not doing you much good right now, is it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No.

CHANG: The only business that flourishes in this city is the drug trade. And cops say they can't keep up. A consultant to the police department says during most night shifts, the busiest shift, only 12 officers are patrolling the entire city. Thomson often doesn't have enough cops to respond to all the 911 calls.

THOMSON: We don't have property crime detectives anymore. You know, I have shooting investigations that are backlogging like burglary cases.

CHANG: Thomson is a man who's already used to living lean. He calls food a privilege and snacks only on peeled apple slices to get through workdays lasting 16 hours or longer. Last January, because of budget cuts, the city laid off almost half of his police force. Drug dealers printed T-shirts that read: January 18, 2011: It's Our Time. Now Thomson has only 230 active police officers, and even that is overstating his actual resources.

THOMSON: Of the 230, on a daily basis, our average is a 30 percent absentee rate. It's a combination of calling in sick and using leave time. That puts us in 1930s staffing levels.

CHANG: Still, Camden spends about 75 percent of its budget on its police and fire departments. But if a car accident doesn't result in injuries, cops won't show up. Attempted murder cases are withering without detectives to investigate. The city wants to hire more officers, but here's the next problem: Officials say the police union contract includes so many expensive benefits, they can't afford any more cops.

JOE CORDERO: What happens when the city can no longer pay? What happens when you price yourself, potentially, out of the market?

CHANG: Joe Cordero is a former New York City police officer who's helping Camden design the bigger countywide police force that's going to replace the city force. He says in all his decades in law enforcement, he's never seen a police contract laden with so many riches. Camden officers now get 4 percent more pay if they work a day shift and a 10 percent bump at night. These and other fringe benefits nearly double a cop's base salary here.

Cordero says lots of other cities have expensive police contracts too. Maybe not on the scale of Camden, but they'll wind up outsourcing their police as well.

CORDERO: It's where policing is going. This serves as the only viable vehicle for getting enough police officers on the streets of Camden, so their citizens have a fighting chance. And so there are very few choices here.

CHANG: And the other choices are looking grim. Camden today is a ghost of the thriving industrial center it used to be in 1930s and '40s.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Rapping) You tell them feds I said I'm never going back.

CHANG: More than 40 percent of residents now live below the poverty line. Factory jobs at Campbell's Soup and RCA left decades ago. People say they turn to crime because they can't make money doing anything else. Drug dealers don't even try to hide most of the time because the threat of getting arrested is so low. That was Scott's experience. He won't use his last name, but he will say he's a heroin addict and a former drug dealer.

SCOTT: Mostly around here, they're yelling it out. You know what I mean? You know, what they got and how good it is and all that stuff. And even to the people that's not even using, they're just broadcasting it out. You know, they're just giving themselves away.

CHANG: To get away from the crime, many residents just spend their days holed up in their homes often behind iron bars that extend from first-floor rooftops all the way to the ground. People here call them birdcages. On the streets, the litter you see isn't soda cans or candy wrappers. Ask any resident, like Bryan Morton, and he'll decode the colorful plastic bags you step on instead.

BRYAN MORTON: So you have weed. You have coke. And then you have heroin, and then you have a needle wrapper.

CHANG: This nearly broke city will get 130 additional police officers with the same money it's spending now by dumping the most expensive fringe benefits. Mayor Dana Redd says they'll try to hire back as many current cops as they can. But if they hire more than half of them, the city is required to keep the old contract in place. I asked the mayor, why did the city keep signing contracts it couldn't afford?

MAYOR DANA REDD: In Camden, the sacred cows that never got touched were police and fire. So I think it became a sense of entitlement that everyone else gets laid off but not us.

CHANG: Wait. So that's your answer is that they just said, no, our way or the highway?

REDD: Absolutely, without question.

JOHN WILLIAMSON, PRESIDENT, FRATERNAL ORDER OF POLICE, CAMDEN, NEW JERSEY: I would say that they, more or less, wanted to compensate us for putting our lives on the line in, you know, one of the most dangerous cities in America.

CHANG: That's John Williamson, the president of Camden's police union. He says it's true, some of the perks in the contract are generous. And he's willing to sit down with the city to come up with a plan to avoid mass layoffs, but he's skeptical. He says the government is exaggerating about large numbers of officers skipping work.

JERSEY: It's a clear attempt to make the current officers look like they're either inefficient or lazy or goldbrickers.

CHANG: Some law enforcement experts agree the city is being heavy-handed. Eugene O'Donnell says the Camden plan is a disguised attempt to bust a police union and undo years of collective bargaining. He's a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

EUGENE O'DONNELL: This is a threat to every police officer in the United States because, ultimately, if it can happen in Camden, it can happen elsewhere. And this is a draconian measure that threatens the existence of the policing profession as a middle-class job.

CHANG: In the end, though, this labor battle doesn't mean much to the residents trapped in their birdcages. Many have already lost what's most important to them, like Tanya Maldonado.

TANYA MALDONADO: It's been three months today. He was gunned down right here. Right there, where the garage is at. He was murdered right there.

CHANG: Maldonado's boyfriend was shot in broad daylight, just a couple blocks from their daughter's school. He sold drugs, and Maldonado thinks he got in a dispute over drug territory. We're sitting next to a makeshift memorial she made for him on the front porch of the house. She just replaced the flowers with fresh ones today.

MALDONADO: I always - I have to be involved, doing something, like buying flowers or driving by here or lighting a candle or something, something that shows these guys out here that somebody still loves him, and he's always thought of and he's never going to be forgotten ever.

CHANG: These memorials to shooting victims are the landscape of Camden: clumps of candles, stuffed animals, liquor bottles displayed on front steps at the side of houses, on empty lots. I walked North Camden for almost three hours and saw a dozen more memorials like Maldonado's. But nowhere that afternoon did I see one police car patrolling the streets.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News.

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