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Violent Crimes Climb as Police Layoffs Take Their Toll on NJ's Troubled Cities

The state’s two largest police unions agree. On its website, the Fraternal Order of Police, which has endorsed Barbara Buono, Christie’s opponent in the November election, called the new county force “blatant union-busting” tied to Camden’s fiscal crisis.

In Trenton, FOP President Ed Brannigan said the governor is ignoring “a void in leadership in City Hall” and refusing to admit that his own fiscal policies are playing a role in the increased violence.

“Trenton’s lay-off of more than 100 cops stemming from the governor’s cuts to the city has compounded this crisis and caused law enforcement to police a city short-staffed and with their hands tied behind their backs, “ he said.

The Policemen’s Benevolent Association is also critical of cutbacks.

“We have been warning about the dangers of layoffs since we first conducted a survey on the issue in 2009,” PBA Spokesman Sgt. James Ryan said in an email.

He criticized the state’s “over-reliance on property tax to fund municipal government and the 2 percent cap,” saying they “have created a perfect storm.”

Statewide, the PBA said that its 300 locals have made $2.1 million in concessions to avoid layoffs, but officers in cities like Trenton have little left in their contracts to negotiate with.

For now, the state police is providing added manpower, which is necessary but only temporary, according to the governor.

“What’s going on in Trenton is what we used to do here in Camden, which is when things would spike we’d send in the state police for a period of time to try to quell some of the violence,” Christie said in August. “Then the state police would leave and the violence would spike back up again.”

Cappelli said the county-run force is exceeding expectations and could be a model for elsewhere.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said. “The department is not fully forced, but we have made a significant impact on a couple of neighborhoods, and the officers being welcomed.”

He pointed to what he said was a “significant reduction in crime” since the county force was deployed. He cited figures from an op-ed, which he wrote and distributed to numerous news agencies: gun seizures were up 34 percent, murders were down 26 percent and daytime shootings were down more than 34 percent.

“We are turning the corner in our fight against crime,” he said. “We are about to trend down after years of trending upward.”

Colandis Francis, president of the Camden County NAACP, is skeptical of the numbers and said it appears that police have been more focused on the areas around business and tourist spots like the Rutgers Camden campus, Cooper Medical Center, the Camden Aquarium, and the Susquehanna Bank Center.

He also called the county force designation a misnomer, because no other towns are participating.

“Camden [County] does not have an area police department, not even close,” he said. “The other 36 towns don’t want anything to do with it.”

The reason, he said, is the lower rates of crime in neighboring communities and a desire to maintain control over their departments.

“There is a reason why the suburban towns want no part of it,” he said. “They want their police to police their communities because they know their communities.”

Cappelli, however, said other municipalities in the county have expressed an interest in the county model and are investigating whether they plan to join. In addition, the county plans to pursue other ways of sharing police services -- centralized booking of suspects, a county detective bureau -- short of a full county takeover.

“Many of our municipalities, because of the 2 percent cap, have moved their detectives back on the street,” he said. “So we are exploring to see if it makes sense to form a county detective bureau to fill that need.”

In the meantime, Trenton officials are pleading with the state to do more. Turner, Gusciora, and Asemblywoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-Mercer) have praised the deployment of state police in the city, but are concerned that the extra officers will not be kept in place as long as they may be needed. They are asking that the attorney general promise to continue the program until order can be restored.

In addition, Councilwoman McBride is asking the governor to bring in officers from other jurisdictions and deputize them, the way he did following superstorm Sandy. There is precedent for the state intervention -- not only are state police patrolling Trenton, but the attorney general created an anticrime task force in Atlantic City and ordered state troopers into the casino district to increase manpower there.

“The [state police] program is going to be [in Trenton] for a short time period,” Gusciora said. “They are working hand in hand with the city but they need to remain there.”

Gusciora agreed with the governor that new models for policing Trenton are necessary. He said the state should follow the model used in Washington, D.C., rather than focus on a Camden model.

“They should form a capitol police force,” he said. “Assign state troopers full-time and man the area downtown to protect state workers and visitors and have a continuing presence.”

This would allow the city to focus on its neighborhoods, rather than expending its resources on the capitol area.

Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage agreed that cities need to be more creative in deploying police, but he also said the state needs to find a way to help. He is concerned that what has happened in Trenton and Newark, which have been hit with a recent spate of murders, could happen elsewhere if cities continue to be constrained by 2 percent budget cap.

Elizabeth lost 29 officers to attrition between 2010 and 2011, an 8.5 percent reduction, but it also has seen a continuing reduction in violent crime -- from 1,398 violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) in 2010 to 1,007 incidents in 2012, according to state figures. Crime was down in 2013, as well, from 568 incidents for the first seven months of 2012 to 553 incidents for the same time period this year. Bollwage credits a community policing effort that includes dozens of neighborhood meetings designed to ensure that police and city officials are constantly up to date on the concerns of residents.

But if cities have to start chipping away at their police departments when rising salaries bump up against the cap, he said, then those efforts may cease to be effective.

While all municipalities are struggling with less aid and the cap, the urban communities face an array of additional challenges, said William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

“The economic crisis has wreaked havoc on them,” he said. “For the most part, they have not come out of the real estate crisis, their values have plummeted, and they are still looking at an increase in tax appeals and foreclosed properties.”

In the past, shrinking tax bases could be offset by tax increases and state aid, but that no longer is the case.

“Fiscal restraints have impacted on public safety, public works, recreation, and other programs in municipalities big and small,” Dressel said.

Turner agreed.

“No one paid attention to the unintended consequences, because those consequences happen where we don’t live, meaning the people who make the laws,” she said.

Bollwage said that the governor’s policies “are driving cities back to 1960s America.”

“There needs to be more of a commitment from Trenton to help these cities,” he said. “There is no program that has come out of Trenton to help cities hire cops.”

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