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

Members of Camden's county-wide police force.
Credit: philly.com
Members of Camden's county-wide police force.

Gun crime in the state’s capitol city has spiked this year -- punctuated by a record number of murders that has city officials facing angry residents and begging for help from the governor.

Thirty-three people had been killed in Trenton before the end of August, two more than the previous high of 31, which occurred in 2005. Local statistics on file with the state police show that 31.8 percent more crimes were committed with a gun through July this year in Trenton than through the same time period last year. Newark is facing a similar surge in violence, with a dozen murders so far in September, bringing the total for the year to 64.

The increase in murders in Trenton comes a little more than a year after the city laid off 105 officers, about one-third of its police force, to help balance its budget in the wake of cuts in state aid and the imposition of a 2 percent budget cap on all towns in the state. The Newark force was reduced by more than 200 during the same time period.

Trenton officials blame the state’s aid and cap policies. They say the cuts forced Trenton to lay off more than 100 police officers, which in turn has led to an increase in gang activity and killings. Mayor Tony Mack, who has been indicted on corruption charges and has faced calls to resign from Christie, members of the state Legislature, and other city officials and residents, is seeking more than $10 million in aid to hire officers.

Christie has said he will not work with the mayor, but others -- including members of the city council and the state legislative delegation representing the city -- are calling for help, as well.

“Trenton is in the middle of a crisis and we need assistance from the governor,” Trenton City Councilwoman Kathy McBride said. “We do not have any money and we have a limited amount of officers due to budget cuts.”

While Christie refuses to deal with the mayor, his administration has deployed state police officers to the city to beef up patrols, and acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman has mandated that prosecutors not plead down gun-related charges in exchange for a conviction as a way of increasing jail time for those arrested.

In addition, Christie has recommended that Trenton look to Camden as a model for how to address its growing violent-crime problem. Earlier this year, Camden disbanded its police force and contracted with Camden County to provide police services, which city and county officials have called an early success.

Trenton is not alone in cutting the size of its police department. Municipal police departments employed 5.8 percent fewer police officers in 2011 than in 2010, and there were 2,272 fewer police officers employed by state, county, local, and other agencies in 2011, according to the state Uniform Crime Report. Statewide figures for 2012 have not been released, but police and union officials say most of the cuts were put in place in 2011 in response to aid cuts and the new 2 percent budget cap, which limits the growth in the total raised by taxes.

Urban areas, according to state figures, have been hit hardest. Each of the six cities designated by the state police Uniform Crime Report as “major urban” -- Camden, Elizabeth, Jersey City, Newark, Paterson, and Trenton -- reduced the number of officers on its payroll between 2010 and 2011, which is the last year for which statewide figures are available. Four of those cities -- Camden, Newark, Paterson, and Trenton -- saw a reduction of more than 100 police officers and together account for one of every four police cut. Three of them -- Camden, Newark and Trenton -- also saw an increase in violent crime during the same period, while the six taken together saw a 6 percent increase in violent crimes and an 8.5 percent increase in murders.

Overall, the “urban 15” -- the major urban and nine other large urban or urban-suburban communities -- saw the number of police officers decrease by 711, about one-third of all police jobs lost between 2010 and 2011. Violent crime in the urban 15 increased 2.4 percent during the same period, fueled by a 6.9 percent increase in robberies and 5 percent increase in murders.

“The longer we allow these gangs and guns and drugs to continue taking over the city, the worse things will become and the harder it will be to fix,” Turner said.

According to the state Uniform Crime Report, violent crime in Trenton increased 0.8 percent between 2010 and 2011, from 1,201 to 1,211. Murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault are listed as violent crimes for the purposes of the UCR. According to preliminary figures available from the state police, there were 1,251 violent crimes in 2012, a 3.3 percent increase. Figures for 2013 are incomplete and have not been verified by the state police, but they list 772 violent crimes through July, compared with 808 through the same period last year. However, gun-related crime increased from 278 to 340, a 22 percent increase during the same period.

Several other New Jersey cities are reporting increased violent crime, including Atlantic City in Atlantic County; Asbury Park and Neptune city and township in Monmouth County; Passaic City in Passaic County; Irvington, East Orange and Orange in Essex County.

Jonette C. Smart, president of the Trenton chapter of the NAACP, said in a written response to questions that state and local budget cuts “have had a devastating effect on the city as a whole and particularly on the public safety issues that we are facing.” She said the governor should be helping cities like Trenton and that the status of the mayor should not matter.

“Our governor has stated that he will not do anything because our mayor has been indicted,” she said. “So he has essentially told the law-abiding taxpaying constituents of Trenton we don’t matter.”

The Christie administration’s response to calls for aid has been to tout successes in Camden, where a county-run force has replaced the city police. The city of Camden, facing budget concerns, agreed last year to disband its force and contract with Camden County to take over the police.

The takeover occurred May 1 when the county officially created its new police force. It has hired about 240 officers with another 100 hires expected to be made later this year. It also hired the former Camden police chief and a number of former midlevel ranking Camden officers. The new county force has been deployed throughout the city of Camden, with the city paying the cost. The county, according to Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli, is in discussions with several other Camden County towns about doing the same thing.

Cappelli is calling it a success, though critics, including the Camden chapter of the NAACP, say it is too early to judge. More significantly, critics say, it is not a county force, given that the city of Camden is the only municipality in the 37-town county to participate in the arrangement.

In a press conference with Camden Mayor Dana Redd in August to announce the city’s new superintendent of schools, Christie praised the Camden police efforts saying that “the results we’ve seen so far in the first quarter of this work in the statistics I’ve seen are very encouraging.”

“It’s a good trend, but we’re not taking any victory laps over one quarter,” he said, according to a transcript of the governor’s remarks provided by his press office. “We’ve got to continue to remain committed. The force has to remain committed and the state will remain committed to supporting this effort, supporting the officers here on the ground, supporting the mayor and the county freeholders who have stood up and very boldly under Freeholder Director Cappelli’s leadership been willing to do this.”

Christie said the approach in Trenton, sending in state police until violence ebbs and then watching the violence “spike back up again,” is little more than a stop-gap measure. He said the Mercer County Freeholders and officials in the city of Trenton should look to Camden as a model.

“We’d be willing to work with the Mercer County government, the county executive Hughes, and the freeholders and with the administration, whatever it may be in Trenton, to do the same type of thing,” he said.

The failure so far to recruit other Camden County municipalities is one reason that legislators representing Trenton remain skeptical of the county police proposal. They say that disbanding the force was a way of eliminating the existing union and police contract, allowing the city and county to cut police wages and benefits. Instead of a Camden County model, they are asking the state to maintain added patrols until crime can be brought back under control and a long-term solution can be found.

“There is no Camden model to be modeled after,” Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) said. “It was simply done to break the unions. They invited every [town in the county] to join, but nobody accepted and they got to fire all of the [Camden city] police and rehire their police force at a reduced salary and pension.”

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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