In Camden, N.J., Life Isn't Easier After Major Layoffs

Jan 18, 2012
Originally published on January 18, 2012 5:27 pm
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It's been a tough year for many who live and work in Camden, New Jersey. A year ago today, Camden's mayor grappled with a $26.5 million budget deficit by laying off hundreds of city workers. Included in the layoff, 168 police officers, nearly half the city's force.

From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Fiedler reports on life in Camden one year later.

ELIZABETH FIEDLER, BYLINE: William Roman was sitting in his house watching TV when the owner of the bodega across the street was killed in early December.

WILLIAM ROMAN: Sitting on my sofa. So that's about what? Fifty feet, 60 feet from the store. But all I heard was a couple, like, pops, and basically, that was it. The next thing I realized there was a lot of sirens and lights and everything else going on, you know?

FIEDLER: The bodega store owner's death was just one small piece of the city's crime problem since the layoffs. According to the mayor's office, in 2011, there were 47 homicides in Camden - up from 37 the year before. Meanwhile, aggravated assaults with a firearm increased 35 percent compared to 2010.

WARREN FAULK: Initially, after the layoffs, things remained pretty steady.

FIEDLER: That's Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk. Faulk thinks criminals realized police did not have sufficient officers on the streets and took advantage of it.

FAULK: We saw robberies particularly tick up in October and November. We saw homicides tick up in October and November. In December, because of those tick-ups, the state police sent in a force of about 40 troopers, and they were able to quell things.

FIEDLER: Camden Fraternal Order of Police President John Williamson says it was a very challenging year for police.

JOHN WILLIAMSON: A lot of the criminals or a lot of the bad people were very brazen, challenging, actually more combative than they normally, you know, would have been.

FIEDLER: Williamson says it's impossible to make such drastic cuts and expect the remaining officers to cover the same amount of ground. But he thinks the remaining officers did a good job of holding the city together. In April, the city started using grant money to bring officers back. It returned just over 100 but at the same time lost about 50 because of officers who went to other jobs or retired. But Williamson says the answer to lowering Camden's crime numbers is no secret: more police.

WILLIAMSON: Every study that's been done on the Camden Police Department over the last 18 years has said that we need to be between 450 and 500 officers.

FIEDLER: Since the layoffs a year ago, Camden County Prosecutor Warren Faulk says Camden police have been pushed from detective work out onto patrol.

FAULK: Those detectives continued to do work on crimes committed in the city, but the follow-ups, they were unable to do, and consequently, our office then in order to sustain the charges would have to do the follow-up work.

FIEDLER: And he says the layoffs have hurt police efforts to keep the streets safe in another big way: They're unable to make as many arrests as before because of the simple lack of manpower. Back at his house across from the bodega, William Roman says his wife is tired of the crime.

ROMAN: My wife, who has been here for 35 years, who has seen this area decline decade after decade, she has some thoughts about the possibility of maybe it's time to move.

FIEDLER: Roman says when a shooting happens so close to home, it's hard not to worry about your own family. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Fiedler. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.