CAMDEN, N.J. -- On a cold autumn night, Darran Johnson, 22, stands by the police tape strung between two trees in the housing complex where he lives with his mom and siblings. On a walkway 20 feet away, a middle-aged man lies dead, shot in the throat and head, sprawled on his back beside a battered 10-speed bicycle. His face is masked in blood that gleams bright red in the crime scene photographer's flash.
Johnson watches tight-lipped as investigators comb the grass for shell casings. "Kids play out here. Average people live here," he says. "I'm shaking. It's getting too close."
Gunfire rings out often in the neighborhood, he says, a regular reminder of the crime wave that has this city of 77,000 on pace to double its homicides in just three years, and has already shattered a nearly 20-year record for killings. With 59 homicides so far this year, the murder rate is on par with levels seen in Haiti in the chaotic aftermath of the 2010 earthquake.
"A bullet has no name. If somebody shoots and I'm walking, I could be hit," Johnson says. "People are afraid right now. You can see it in their faces."
The crime surge coincides with new census data identifying Camden, long battered by vanishing industry, as the most impoverished city in the U.S., with 42 percent of residents under the poverty line, and an average family income of $21,191. If trends persist, Camden may soon hold the grim title of both the country's poorest and most dangerous city.
As residents decry the violence, local leaders are readying a radical plan that they call the only practical solution at hand to calm the streets: the dismantling of the Camden Police Department and the outsourcing of policing to a new, cheaper force run by the county government, to be called the Camden Metro Division. They say the closure of the 141-year-old department and the creation of a new agency is necessary because the existing union-negotiated police contract is no longer sustainable in a time of deep budget deficits.
The plan was sold to Camden residents as a security fix: by firing the existing police force, they were told, millions of savings would be redirected into hiring about 130 new uniformed officers -- a 50 percent increase over current staffing.
"It's time to reject the status quo and ramp this police department up to a level that it needs," Louis Capelli, director of the Camden County Board of Freeholders, which would control the metro agency, tells The Huffington Post.
City and county leaders approved the plan last year, and it cleared major legal hurdles this summer, opening the way for full implementation. Applications are being accepted for the new force, and training for the first group of hires will begin in November, according to Dan Keashen, a county spokesman. As early as next March, the old police department will be shut down for good. Other Camden County cities have been invited to join the new department, but none have shown interest yet.
On the surface, the shift to a county-run force resembles efforts in other cities around the country to save money by merging departments and regionalizing police services. But several experts say there are few specific parallels with the Camden plan, which involves a densely populated, high-crime city, and will not include any actual merger between police departments.
"I don't know that this has been done before," says Louis Tuthill, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University. "I have never heard of it."
Some see the move to shut down the Camden Police Department and shift to a cheaper county-run model as a frontal attack on public safety unions. They warn the same strategy may soon be used to extract concessions from cops and firefighters across New Jersey, and ultimately the country.
"This is not a policing strategy. This is something more sinister," says Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Every cop in America should worry about what's happening in Camden."
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Backing the plan are Camden's mayor and six of seven city council members -- all Democrats -- together with the Democratic-controlled Camden County Board of Freeholders, which represents the county's 400,000 residents. Those involved say New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie has also been a crucial force behind the proposal. In interviews and town hall meetings over the past two years, Christie has repeatedly denounced the Camden police contract as "obscene" and described the county police plan as a common-sense measure to bring down public safety costs during tough economic times.
"The taxpayers of New Jersey aren't going pay any more for Camden's excesses," Christie said in a 2011 interview on MSNBC, as the police plan began gathering steam.
Christie has unique leverage to drive the plan, as the city of Camden relies on roughly $60 million in emergency state aid every year to close deep structural budget deficits and provide basic city services. According to local leaders, Christie threatened to slash this aid in the absence of major reforms. Since Christie has veto power over much of Camden's budget, the threat carried weight. Chief among the governor's concerns was the structure of the policing contract, says Ian Leonard, a member of the Board of Freeholders.
"The governor's saying this is too expensive," Leonard says. "And when someone else is writing the checks to you, you know, he or she -- as my mother used to say -- who holds the pen holds the power."
To drive the plan forward, its backers have gone on the offensive, depicting the existing police contract as laden with extravagant perks negotiated by the union in better days and out of step with the current hard times. They say they have identified between $14 million to $16 million in savings to be had by cutting out wasteful "fringe" pay from $60 million in annual police spending in the city.
"Previous administrations, they gave the store away," Capelli says.
Keashen, the Camden County spokesman, provided HuffPost with a one-page email briefly outlining how the $14 million to $16 million in savings would be achieved. According to the outline, fringe pay -- which includes pension and health care benefits -- will cost the county roughly $25 million in 2012. Under the new county plan, nearly 65 percent of this spending will be eliminated.
The outline did not break down the specific spending categories that would be targeted for savings, however. And further detail on the finances of the plan is not available to the public, Keashen says.
Under the terms of the plan, the city of Camden’s remaining cops will all receive layoff notices within the next few weeks. At the same time, they have the option to apply for a new job with the county-run force, though they have no guarantee of employment. And under the city and county's interpretation of state labor law, only 49 percent of current officers will be eligible for hire with the new force.
It is a harsh calculus for a department that already suffered sweeping layoffs in 2010 as a result of a steep budget deficit. But city leaders say it is the only way forward.
"We've been encouraging officers to move over, get ready for the new paradigm," Camden Mayor Dana Redd tells HuffPost. "This is the way we're going."
'THE NUMBERS DON'T ADD UP'
Even as city and county leaders call the metro agency a done deal, it faces a growing outcry from critics who assail it as a harsh experiment in public sector union-busting and say it's being forced on New Jersey's most economically vulnerable population by state power brokers with little interest in Camden's well-being.
They say the plan was crafted in secrecy and that basic information about the current police department's finances, and budgeting for the new agency, have never been provided to the public.
Other critics focus on the county’s plan to replace seasoned officers with new recruits, with some community activists warning that an influx of young officers from outside the city could spark unrest on the streets.
The perception that older cops are being discarded as a cost-saving maneuver has also deeply embittered many in the department’s ranks, officers say.
"I might not have a job in a couple of months, after risking my life for years," says one veteran cop, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears retaliation by his superiors.
Brian Coleman, the only Camden councilman to oppose the metro plan, says he has tried to get a full accounting of the police department's current spending from city hall, but he’s had no success. The finances of the new police agency have never been provided to the public or discussed in detail by the city council, Coleman says.
"I've asked for an explanation and requested documents, but they haven't turned them over," he says. "The numbers don't add up. That's why they don't release them."
Brendan O'Flaherty, a Columbia University economics professor who specializes in urban finance, reviewed the one-page financial summary provided by the county to HuffPost and calls it "incomprehensible."
"I don't see how anybody could have made an intelligent decision on this based on the information they've shared," he says. "It's a serious breach of normal standards of transparency."
Without a detailed financial breakdown of current spending or of the budgeting of the new metro agency, it is impossible to verify even the most basic claims being made about the proposal, says O'Donnell.
"They're doing this under cover of darkness," he says. "It's beyond belief. This can't be anything less than a scandal."
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie, says the governor "fully supports" the policing plan. He declined to comment on questions about the plan's finances or on issues of transparency.
"Those specific questions about the savings estimates and breakdown are best directed to the county and/or city," Roberts said in an email.
At a press conference in September, Christie praised the Camden plan and called it a model for the rest of the state, according to a transcript of comments provided by the governor's office.
"I think this should be a wave of the future in places that are challenged like this, and so we're certainly going to be full partners in it," Christie said.
According to Keashen, the county spokesman, the governor's office is currently in negotiations to provide about $5 million in start-up funds for the new metro agency. Those negotiations are in their final stages, he says.
As the plan grows nearer to reality, any chance for a smooth transition between the two agencies appears increasingly dim. The Camden Fraternal Order of Police, the city’s police union, is fiercely resisting the creation of the metro agency. Its president, John Williamson, continues to blast city and county leaders for what he calls a shameless attempt to crush the union and strip away rights earned through decades of collective bargaining.
"Would you buy a car sight unseen?" Williamson asks. "This deal is not being conducted out in the open. And the math just doesn't add up."
County officials reject the allegation that the plan’s finances are shaky, and maintain that the metro agency's budget is simply not ready for public consumption.
"We’re not going to go live with a budget until it’s completely done," Keashen says. "You’ll see at the end of the day that the numbers add up."
Efforts to block the county plan have all faltered, including a drive in 2011 to place the new police plan up to public vote. Petitioners gathered enough signatures to put the initiative on the ballot, but the city sued to have it thrown out and prevailed in state court.
Opponents of the metro police plan continue to fight, however, with a new focus on building public pressure to force the city back to the negotiating table, and to forge a compromise that will save the old department. They gained a major ally in this battle in late October, when James Harris, president of the New Jersey NAACP, appeared at a press conference called by the Camden police union.
In brief remarks, Harris denounced the plan to disband the Camden Police Department as "wrong" and "unjust," and pledged his organization’s full support.
"The NAACP will use all of our resources to stay on this issue and to bring national attention to the disrespect and the unreasonable approach to bringing about police reform in the city of Camden," Harris said.
"Do not eliminate the Camden Police Department. Find ways of improving it, but do not eliminate it," he said.
'A WAR ZONE'
At the heart of the battle over the policing plan are Camden's 267 cops, who face the imminent loss of their jobs, even as they contend with a city that seems to some to be spinning out of control.
Times were not always so tough in Camden, which sits on the banks of the Delaware River, across the water from Philadelphia. As recently as the 1960s, the city was an industrial powerhouse, with dozens of major factories employing thousands of residents. With a population nearly 70 percent higher than today, crime was just a fraction of its current rate.
But in 1971, long-simmering racial strife exploded into riots, accelerating the flow of middle-class whites to the suburbs. Factories closed down, taking with them about 60,000 manufacturing jobs, part of a wave of de-industrialization that hollowed out the economic heart of cities across the county. As the economy tanked, crime soared.
It has remained that way for decades, making Camden among the toughest beats in all of local law enforcement, often topping the FBI's annual list of most dangerous cities.
Today, thousands of abandoned homes blight the streets, their porches often doubling as tombstones, with spray-painted tributes to murder victims. Across broad quarters of the city, drug dealers and prostitutes roost on stoops and street corners, scattering only for a moment at the approach of a police cruiser.
The intensity of police work in Camden can reach almost unimaginable levels. Just this September, officers handled two grisly crimes involving children that made national news. In one, a mother high on PCP decapitated her 2-year-old son, then called police to report the crime. Weeks later, a young man, also high on PCP, broke into a Camden home and stabbed a 6-year-old boy to death and savagely assaulted his 12-year-old sister. Uniformed police apprehended the killer after an intensive manhunt.
Several current Camden officers spoke about their situation with HuffPost on condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation by their superiors. They describe a department crumbling from within, whose demoralized officers feel abandoned by the city they pledged to protect. Bitterness runs deep over what they feel is a long-running campaign by city and county officials to paint Camden's cops as ineffective, unreliable and over-compensated.
"Camden is not a joke. Some parts of this place are a war zone," says one officer. "My friend opened up a freezer and saw a kid's head looking back at him. He's got to live with that the rest of his life."
"We risk our lives every day. And this is what you get in return," he says. "See you later and don't let the door hit you on the way out."
Another veteran officer warns that replacing seasoned Camden cops with large numbers of inexperienced, lower-paid recruits -- as the metro plan envisions -- is a recipe for disaster. He scoffs at a recent comment by Capelli, the Board of Freeholders director, announcing that the new agency had received more than 1,000 applications, including some from states as distant as Alabama.
"They're going to be thrown to the wolves," he says. "If some outsider from Alabama comes in and shoots a kid, it's a potential for some civil unrest."
In August, county leaders announced that Camden police Chief Scott Thomson would lead the metro agency once the existing force was disbanded. For months, Thomson has spoken out in favor of the new agency – while leveling harsh criticism at members of his current force, saying it is plagued by absenteeism.
Many within the department see his role in pushing the plan as a betrayal, officers say. But they add that the sense of betrayal and abandonment extends far past Thomson, from city hall to the governor’s mansion.
"It’s a feeling of being unappreciated by your boss, by your mayor, by your government," says a long-serving officer.
'PEOPLE ARE AFRAID'
In an interview with HuffPost, Thomson, the Camden police chief, did not dispute that officer morale is abysmal. He says spirits are understandably low given the challenges facing officers, from soaring crime on the streets to the looming closure of the department.
"It is tough. And nobody has it tougher than these guys on the front lines," he says.
But he also says the department faces a crisis of absenteeism, a claim the police union calls exaggerated. According to Thomson, the department’s daily call-out rate is 30 percent -- far above the average in other cities.
"There are some days when half the platoon calls in sick," Thomson says.
Redd, the Camden mayor, regularly cites the absentee rate as a crucial reason for creating the county metro force.
"Given the recent spike in homicides and an absentee rate of nearly 30 percent within the Camden Police Department, I recently announced that the city is aggressively moving towards joining the Camden Metro Division," Redd said in a statement in August.
Thomson, however, says the absentee problem is primarily due to abuse of a state family medical leave program overseen by the city, not any provision in the police union’s contract. He calls it peripheral to Camden’s overall public safety crisis. "You fix the 30 percent issue, that doesn’t change our situation," he says. "We’re still at 1962 staffing levels."
He says he has no comment on the $14 million to $16 million in fringe spending that county officials say they will eliminate by liquidating the current police force.
"I’m not intimately involved in the finance end of this. My primary focus is keeping the public safe," he says. "I’m not bean counting in the back room."
Thomson adds that he cannot agree with Christie’s assessment that Camden’s current police contract is "obscene" -- or even say whether it is more or less generous than the average police contract in New Jersey.
"I don’t know. I don’t have a baseline of comparison," he says. "Without knowing what the other contracts are, that’s a difficult comparison."
Nevertheless, Thomson calls the current police contract unsustainable, given Camden’s dire economic situation. Switching to the metro agency will not solve all of Camden’s problems, but will boost the number of cops on the street and help bring crime to a more manageable level, he says.
"I don’t think there’s any other option," he says. "The status quo cannot remain."
Out on the streets, Camden residents call the city’s crime rate intolerable, and condemn the economic calculus by the city and state that forced deep cuts to policing even in the face of soaring violence. A few welcome the creation of the metro police force and the promised surge of cops on the beat. For many others, the move represents a worrying leap into the unknown.
"They’re experimenting with the lives of the people," says Rev. David King, a local activist and a pastor at Community Baptist Church. "They’re using the city as a guinea pig."
"People are afraid," he says. "They don’t know what’s going to happen."