Camden City Council, state approve plan to lay off all city police officers

In this Nov. 17, 2010 photo, Camden Police Officer L.A. Sanchez walks a beat in a downtown shopping area in Camden, N.J. The New Jersey Civil Service Commission approved a plan to layoff more than 250 police officers beginning on April 30. (AP Photo/Mel Evans) AP
Inquirer Staff Writer

In quick succession Friday, the Camden City Council and the state Department of Community Affairs approved a plan to lay off all of the city's uniformed police officers, paving the way for a new county-run force to replace Camden's 141-year-old Police Department.

The approvals were given after the state Civil Service Commission last week gave the green light to the mass layoffs, set for April 30.

Notices are expected to go out soon to about 260 officers. City police unions have vowed to fight the layoffs in court.

An attorney for one of the unions alleged that the commission had been swayed by erroneous information the city submitted about its financial condition and the history of negotiations over a new contract.

Critics of the plan call it a union-busting maneuver; city and county officials say the county-run force would operate less expensively and would put more officers on the streets of a city that last year had a record 67 homicides.

If current police employees believe they are being laid off for reasons other than economy, efficiency, and related reasons, commission spokesman Peter Lyden said Friday, they may file good-faith appeals.

As for the city's submissions, "we . . . presume that the statements are made in good faith," Lyden said.

But lawyer Christopher Gray of Marlton, who represents the smaller, 31-member superior officers' union, said the city's claim that it cannot afford an adequately staffed police force was questionable because the city gave raises to other employees in recent years.

John Williamson, who heads the city's rank-and-file union, also claimed there were inaccuracies in the plan the city submitted to the commission, but he would not cite specifics, saying he did not want to give the other side a "heads-up" in a potential legal battle.

Lyden said the commission's approval of the layoff plan was based in part on information Mayor Dana L. Redd provided in a seven-page Nov. 29 letter that listed a history of failed contract talks with the police unions and said the city was opting for the county force because it could "no longer sustain the costs of maintaining necessary levels of police services."

One of the points in the letter is that state transitional aid was cut from $61 million in fiscal year 2012 to $18.5 million in 2013. However, it does not mention a different category of state aid - "formula aid" - that was increased from $46 million in 2012 to $86 million in 2013.

City police unions have been working under contracts that expired years ago.

Gray said he had been asking the city and county to consider merging the city department with the new force.

"We understand that the contracts will be different and the benefits will be different, but we are dealing with tenured law enforcement officers that know the city, have worked the city," Gray said, adding that the city and county had refused to negotiate such a transition.

He said he would file an appeal with the Appellate Division of Superior Court to challenge the basis on which the city justified the layoffs.

Last month, an arbitrator ruled against the superior officers' call for retroactive pay increases in a new contract, citing Camden's dire financial situation and "abject poverty" among its residents.

 


Contact Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917, cvargas@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @InqCVargas. Read her blog, "Camden Flow," on www.philly.com/camden_flow.

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