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 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, 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.
Camden’s Democratic mayor, Dana Redd, has held firm on the budget cuts. Echoing Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s tough talk about fiscal responsibility, Redd has insisted that Camden has no choice but to “live within our means.”
Redd has adopted Christie’s confrontational stance against public-sector unions. She has placed responsibility for the layoffs — not implausibly — on the police union, which 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, is around $140,000 a year — in a city where more than half 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. (For years, New Jersey has supplied state police to help patrol Camden.)
Behind closed doors, though, the Mayor’s Office is clearly worried. That is evident in Camden’s application last fall for transitional state aid for 2011 (over and above all other state aid that Camden regularly receives).
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 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 20 percent in the past year.
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.
Christie approved the city’s transitional aid application, granting $69 million in special aid — more than for any other city in the state. Most of that money, however, will go to covering a host of basic services (like solid-waste removal), along with pension costs. Redd asked for an additional $8.3 million to prevent layoffs, but Christie granted only $1.5 million.
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 dangerous streets.
Jacob Laksin is the managing editor of Front Page magazine. This article was adapted from www.city-journal.org.