Countywide police force getting closer

In an effort to curb increased violence in the City of Camden, last week, Gov. Christie ordered the deployment of state troopers during the worst times, days and locations where crime has skyrocketed in the city.

The push for more visible uniformed officers on city streets has also propelled Camden County freeholders and mayors to plan to establish a countywide police force, which would include a metro division responsible for policing the City of Camden.

Last week, county officials announced they had made significant progress in furthering plans to establish the regional plan.

County freeholder director Louis Cappelli Jr. said Camden County, the City of Camden and the governor’s office recently entered a memorandum of understanding, which allows the three entities to further explore the idea of a regional police force.

Cappelli said the draft plan, which is available for viewing on the county’s website, is close to being completed.

“All we need to start is one municipality to participate in the voluntary process,” Cappelli said. “We can’t force this on anybody.”

The plan has received mixed reviews from local municipalities. If Cherry Hill Township were to join the countywide police force, it would have to give up local control of policing.

Larger municipalities, Cappelli said, would have their own metro divisions and a smaller town’s police forces would be regionalized.

All current police employees, if their municipality were to join the plan, would have the opportunity to be employed by the county police force, Cappelli said.

When the plan was first introduced earlier this year, Cherry Hill Mayor Bernie Platt said he was not interested in moving forward with the plan.

County officials said the costs have not yet been identified to fund the regional police force. Cappelli said officials are still looking at the costs, but said the regional police force would help maintain and control costs moving forward.

Cherry Hill taxpayers would stand to save about $153.80 a year, according to figures released earlier this year from the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.

Platt said the police department retains its position not to join the countywide police force.

“First and foremost, it’s important to remember that the men and women who serve Cherry Hill on a daily basis are, by my estimates, the best in the state and, I would argue, the country,” Platt said. “With regard to Camden County’s concept of creating a county-wide police department, it is imperative for me to be as clear as possible that Cherry Hill police will police Cherry Hill streets and Cherry Hill streets only.”

The plan can still move forward without the support of all local police departments, Cappelli said. He added that towns that do not join the regional police force will not have to financially contribute to it or to the cost for the force in Camden City.

Municipalities that join will pay the county for policing, instead of paying for it through the municipality itself.

In a time of economic downturn, a mandatory 2 percent cap on tax hikes and police layoffs, Cappelli said the regional police force is a good option for many local municipalities. In the past year, he said, more than 300 police officers have been laid off countywide. In Camden alone, 168 were laid off last year, with 100 rehired this year.

“We believe that it would benefit a lot of municipalities,” Cappelli said. “A lot of crime stems from Camden City. If we can improve Camden, we can improve the county.”

Platt said he recognizes the regional force may be beneficial to some towns, but not to Cherry Hill.

“A county-wide department may be good for other towns, but I see no reason for the township to entertain an alternative to our current police department and public safety services,” he said.

Cappelli said the parties involved are also exploring options to regionalize some police special services, including a detective bureau, SWAT teams, K-9 units and cooperative purchasing. This plan, he said, is gaining some traction.

For the city of Camden, noticeable improvements would come with the transition to a regional force, Cappelli said, including doubling police on the street, more community policing, more officers walking the beat and additional bike patrols.

Officials also indicated that no police officers or personnel from county municipalities would be asked to serve in the City of Camden.

Cappelli said once Camden signs on the dotted line, the regional police force could be up and running within six months.

The plan, he hopes, would enhance public safety in the city and beyond.

“The most important thing is making sure all citizens are safe,” Cappelli said.