States and municipalities around the country are struggling to tighten their fiscal belts, but few cities face as stark a choice as the hard-luck South New Jersey city of Camden. One of America’s most dangerous cities, Camden seeks to close a $26.5 million budget hole by laying off one-quarter of its city government workers—including half of its police force. In an austerity plan that went into effect last month, the city laid off 180 uniformed officers and 20 police dispatchers from its 375-strong force.
Camden expects to save $14 million from the police department cuts, but there is growing alarm that the city, one of the country’s poorest and most violent, will wind up paying a much higher price for its budget savings. Camden residents, already afraid to venture out after dark, worry that the city will become even more hospitable for criminals. “They’ll be coming into the houses,” one fearful resident recently told the New Jersey Star-Ledger. “They know you can’t call the cops. There won’t be any cops to call.” The local press has reported on drug dealers’ openly relishing the prospect of a diminished police presence.
Camden’s Democratic mayor, Dana Redd, has held firm on the budget cuts. Echoing Republican governor Chris Christie’s tough talk about fiscal responsibility, Redd has insisted that Camden has no choice but to “live within our means.” Redd has also adopted Christie’s confrontational stand against public-sector unions. She has placed responsibility for the layoffs—not implausibly—on the police union, which unanimously rejected her plan to save 100 police jobs through a pay cut in the form of unpaid furloughs. The average salary for a rank-and-file police officer in Camden, after benefits, the mayor points out, is around $140,000 a year—in a city where more than half of the residents live below the federal poverty line. Camden’s police chief, Scott Thomson, vows that the city can absorb the cuts by restructuring the police to focus more on violent crime and on street patrols. There are also hopes that the nearly 20 law enforcement agencies that already have a presence in Camden—including the state police, the Camden County Sheriff’s Department, the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, the Camden County Park Police, the Delaware River Port Authority police, and the campus police from Rutgers and Rowan Universities—will be able to make up some of the numbers from the downsized force.
Behind closed doors, though, the mayor’s office is clearly worried. That’s evident from Camden’s application last fall for transitional state aid for 2011, a lifeline that the city, up to 70 percent of whose municipal and public school budget has been bankrolled by the state in recent years, has long relied on to weather budget woes. Signed by Redd, the application raises a concern that the mayor is reluctant to state in public: “It is anticipated that the reduction of sworn officers within our Police and Fire Departments will result in a severe public safety crisis affecting residents, workers and visitors.”
That concern is well justified. Statistics show that violent crime has been on the rise in the city. There were 37 murders in Camden in 2010, compared with 34 in 2009. Shootings have spiked by 20 percent in the past year; the city’s streets are a firing range. Camden’s violent crime rate is five times the national average, according to the FBI, while its overall crime rate is three times the national norm. A recent national survey ranked it as the country’s second most dangerous city.
Not only will it be more difficult for police to target crime; keeping criminals behind bars will be harder, too. In addition to the police cuts, the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office is preparing to lay off nearly one-quarter of its staff. Because some 60 percent of the office’s investigations—including homicides, domestic-violence incidents, and other violent crimes—are focused on Camden, the city will be hardest hit. Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, says that while the “lack of police on the street is a problem,” the “real pain” will come when there is no one to follow up on the police work and build a case against arrested criminals. “The arrests that police make are only as good as the case that follows and keeps those people incarcerated,” Laughlin says.
But while Camden’s cuts have drawn widespread criticism, few practical proposals, apart from union concessions, have been put forward for how Camden might avert layoffs. All nonessential spending has already been frozen; spending overall has been cut 25 percent. Raising property taxes, a common solution in New Jersey, is an unlikely solution. Camden has already raised its taxes by 3 percent, and officials point out that the city is so short of taxable property that this revenue amounts to only about a quarter of the municipal budget. Camden’s tax base is minuscule. The city’s median income of $24,283 is less than half of the state average.
As for the city’s usual bailout in state aid, it won’t save Camden this time. Governor Christie approved the city’s transitional aid application, granting $69 million in special aid—more than for any other city in the state, though less than Camden has received in previous years. Most of that money, however, will go to covering a host of basic services (like solid-waste removal) as well as pension costs. Redd asked for an additional $8.3 million to prevent layoffs, but Christie granted only $1.5 million.
In Camden, no lifeline is apparent. Unless the police union makes real concessions, there seems little chance that laid-off officers will be rehired—and Camden’s overstretched force will be even less equipped to patrol the city’s increasingly deadly streets.