CAMDEN, N.J. -- A few weeks ago, a young man was shot to death in broad daylight just down the street from Miguel Amador's small music shop on one of this city's busy commercial strips. Police took 15 minutes to reach the scene, giving the killers plenty of time to escape, he said.
The slow response was typical, according to Amador, 40, president of the local Dominican-American chamber of commerce. Police are rarely seen in the area. "They don't do the patrols like they need to do," he said. "You feel unsafe, of course."
Crime is surging in Camden, long one of the most dangerous cities in the country. An outbreak of drug-fueled shootings has the city on pace to break its all-time homicide record, set during the crack epidemic of the 1990s. But with money tight, city leaders have an unusual answer to calm the violence: fire all the police officers.
With the enthusiastic backing of Chris Christie, New Jersey's Republican governor, the Camden City Council took crucial steps this month on a plan to disband the city's 141-year-old police department and outsource police services to a new county-run agency. Within weeks, layoff notices are expected to be sent to roughly 270 officers, less than half of whom will be eligible for employment with the county.
Christie praised the plan during a stop in Camden last week, shortly before departing for Tampa to deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention. "I'm willing to put my name on the line for this concept," he said, according to a transcript of remarks provided by his office.
Christie suggested the plan may serve as a model for other cash-strapped municipalities. "I believe that it is time for us to find greater efficiencies in the way we provide services to folks," he said. "I think we need to get over the old orthodoxies."
The plan's backers, including Camden Mayor Dana Redd and Frank Moran, the city council president, both Democrats, say the city cannot afford its current contract with the police department, which includes generous pension and health care benefits and perks like longevity pay. Shifting to a county-run force allows the city to negate the current contract and start from scratch with lower salaries and less benefits for officers.
According to Redd, breaking the existing police contract will allow the city to afford roughly 130 more officers.
"I think the residents are going to be very happy to see new boots on the ground," Redd told The Huffington Post.
While Camden leaders describe the plan as a done deal, critics complain that details remain scarce and say the public is being kept in the dark.
"There's nothing written. There's nothing laid out about how people are going to be affected," said Thomas Knoche, a city planner and adjunct professor of urban studies at Rutgers. "It's just a bad process."
Joyce Gabriel, a spokeswoman for Camden County, which will oversee the new police department, said she could not provide any written documentation about the agency's finances or how it will function.
"There's not a final plan that's out there yet," Gabriel said. "You can't put a plan out until all the pieces are in place."
John Williamson, president of the city's police union, said the scarcity of details available about the new agency was a clear sign that residents were being being used in a large-scale experiment in public safety with uncertain consequences.
"This plan is unproven, untested and unstudied," Williamson said. "They're playing mad scientist with people's lives."
Some residents expressed similar apprehension about the plan. "I don't have any details," said Amador, the small business owner. "What if it's worse? What's the catch behind this?"
Williamson did not dispute that the city needed major changes in public safety. But he blamed the surge in crime on sweeping layoffs in 2010 that cut the police department staff nearly in half. He urged city leaders to return to the negotiating table.
"We agree that public safety needs to be addressed and to do nothing is absolutely out of the question," he said.
But Camden leaders call the plan a done deal. They have hired consultants to organize the new agency and secured a funding commitment from the governor.
Redd, the mayor, said pressure from Christie was a key factor in the move to scrap the police department. Camden is the state's preeminent urban basketcase, with a deeply dysfunctional local economy and a shrunken tax base totally incapable of sustaining even basic services for the city's roughly 80,000 residents. Nearly 70 percent of the city's budget is paid for by the state.
Since taking office in 2009, Christie has made pushing cities like Camden toward self-sufficiency a top priority. In 2011, he threatened to strip nearly $70 million in state aid to Camden -- nearly half of the city budget -- unless the city agreed to major fiscal reforms.
"Christie has told the city, no more blank checks," Redd said.
Nevertheless, Camden's leaders tout the dismantling of the police department and the creation of the county-run agency as a move to increase public safety, not a cost-saving measure. They say the agency will consist of about 400 officers, many of them new to Camden. According to Joe Cordero, a public safety consultant and former NYPD inspector hired to get the new department up and running, the result will be more officers on the streets.
Camden County leader Louis Cappelli rejected charges that the move to a county-run policing model was untested, calling it virtually identical to systems in many other states. "This is a national model," he said.
Some Camden residents said they felt that they had little to lose from the plan, calling the existing police department a failure.
William Suarez, 52, works at a gas station near a busy intersection on the city's east side. "I haven't seen a cop car in three hours," he said, as teenagers raced up and down the street on noisy and clearly unlicensed all-terrain vehicles and motorbikes.
Last Labor Day weekend, Suarez was stabbed while being robbed by three men while walking home from a party. He pulled up his shirt to reveal a four-inch scar from the assault, which sent him to the emergency room.
A witness to the stabbing called 911 as the attackers fled down the street. The officer took the report over the phone and no officers came out to the scene, he said.
A few months later, his elderly mother was robbed and beaten outside her home during the middle of the day. The police took four hours to respond.
"We do need better cops around here," he said.
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