Blue Line


September 24, 2013  By Corrie Sloot

785 words – MR

The challenge of affordable policing

by Scott Villers

After 144 years, New Jersey’s Camden Police Department was disbanded April 30, 2013 and replaced by a newly formed county agency. The city had run out of money and could no longer afford its own police service.



The 19th and first half of the 20th Century were prosperous times for Camden, which borders Philadelphia. Numerous businesses and industries moved into the city, including a major shipyard, Campbell soup and RCA.

The good times did not last and Camden was declining economically by the 1970s. As businesses and industry shut down or left, the unemployment rate rose, resulting in many residents moving away. The middle class fled because of increasing crime made worse by the introduction of crack cocaine in the 80s. Camden’s population dropped to just 77,000 in 2011, down from a 1950 peak of 124,000.

{Start of the crisis}

The decline meant a reduced tax base, which reached a tipping point following the 2008 economic crisis. All city departments were cut, including police. Another massive budget cut in 2010 led to the announced lay off of 163 officers, almost half its total strength of 368. An infusion of state money reduced the layoff to 98 but the cuts were still a body blow to a department reeling from an earlier recruitment freeze, which saw officer numbers fall from 450 in 2005.

City officials complained that the police union refused to budge on generous pensions and other benefits it had received during the good times, effectively pricing local officers out of a job.

Prior to the budget cuts Camden police had grown from it’s founding in 1868 to a full range department with investigative, swat, mounted and K-9 units.

The cut in manpower resulted in a major restructuring, including trimming or disbanding units. Desk officers were redeployed to patrol duty and even chief Scott Thomson admitted in a 2011 interview with the that he had made five arrests since the layoffs began. The average number of cars on the road dropped from 20 to 12.

Despite a massive increase in crime, the detective unit was cut. Homicides increased to 67 in 2012 from 40 in 2010. All categories of crime shot up, resulting in Camden being described as the most dangerous city in the United States.

Camden’s only growth industry was crime. The city had some 170 drug markets and 600 registered sex offenders. ‘We don’t have any real policing in Camden,” one resident said. “They’re just out here to pick up the bodies.”

{The beginning of the end}

The layoffs did little to stem the budget crisis so the city began looking at other policing options. The reality was obvious; the city could no longer afford its police.

Camden announced a deal in August 2012 with neighboring Camden County to form a new agency, the Camden County Police Department. Residents and the police union fought the move but the courts sided with the city plan.

Camden would be policed by a Metro division of the new county department, which would also police 20 area towns. The county department had lower salaries, benefits and pensions and drew from an expanded tax base in the more prosperous Camden County.

{The new era}

The new police department currently has 261 officers and 61 civilian support staff and expects to expand to 400 officers by the end of the year.

Thomson is the chief of the new agency, which includes more than 100 former Camden city police officers.
Time will tell if this new era in policing is effective in reducing crime in a cost effective way. Camden’s dire circumstances resulted in a radical solution to the problem of affordable policing.

This is not just a problem in the United States but across the world and many police services are meeting the challenge through new and innovative ideas.


Canadian police budgets are also under scrutiny. A number of smaller Ontario police services have been disbanded as municipalities signed contracts with the Ontario Provincial Police to save money.

Larger agencies like the Toronto Police Service are also dealing with reduced budgets. Managers recently decided to replace sworn officers who carry out booking duties with lower paid court officers. The move is not only innovative but also cost effective.

In another example of cost cutting, Scotland’s eight regional police services recently merged to form a national police service. Like Camden, the move was dictated by reduced budgets and a need to cut administrative costs.

The lesson of Camden is that police cannot take funding for granted. Innovative, cost effective policing methods must be found to avoid the fate of services like Camden.

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