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Apocalypse, New Jersey: A Dispatch From America's Most Desperate Town

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The city for decades hadn't been able to pay even for its own cops, so it funded most of its operating budget from state subsidies. But once Christie assumed office, he announced that "the taxpayers of New Jersey aren't going to pay any more for Camden's excesses." In a sweeping, statewide budget massacre, he cut municipal state aid by $445 million. The new line was, people who paid the taxes were cutting off the people who didn't. In other words: your crime, your problem.

The "excesses" Christie was referring to included employment contracts negotiated by the police union. A charitable explanation of the sweet deal Camden gave its cops over the years was that the police union had an unusually strong bargaining position. "Remember, this was the only police force in South Jersey whose members regularly had to risk their lives," says retired Rutgers-Camden professor Howard Gillette. The less-charitable say these deals were the result of a hey-it-isn't-our-money-anyway subsidy-mongering. Whatever the cause, until Christie came along, the Camden police had a relatively rich contract, with overtime up the wazoo and paid days off on birthdays. If a cop worked an overnight, he got a 12 percent "shift enhancement" bump, which made sense because of the extreme danger. But an officer who clocked in at noon under the same agreement still got an extra four percent. "Every shift was enhanced," says a spokesman for the new department.

But a big reason that Christie hit Camden's police unions so hard was simply that he could. He'd wanted to go after New Jersey urban schools, which he derided as "failure factories." But a series of state Supreme Court rulings based on a lawsuit originally filed on behalf of students in Camden and three other poor communities in the Eighties – Abbott v. Burke, a landmark case that would mandate roughly equal per-pupil spending levels across New Jersey – made cuts effectively impossible. The courts didn't offer similar protection to police budgets, though. By New Year's 2011, the writing was on the wall. After Christie announced his budget plans, panicked city leaders got together, pored over their books and collective-bargaining agreements, and realized the unthinkable was about to happen. Camden, a city that even before any potential curtailing of state subsidies made Detroit or East St. Louis seem like Martha's Vineyard, was about to see its police force, one of its biggest expenditures, chopped nearly in half.

On January 18th, 2011, the city laid off 168 of its 368 police officers, kicking off a dramatic, years-long, cops-versus-locals, house-to-house battle over a few square miles of North American territory that should have been national news, but has not been, likely because it took place in an isolated black and Hispanic ghost town.

After the 2011 layoffs, police went into almost total retreat. Drug dealers cheerfully gave interviews to local reporters while slinging in broad daylight. Some enterprising locals made up T-shirts celebrating the transfer of power from the cops back to the streets: JANUARY 18, 2011 – it's our time. A later design aped the logo of rap pioneers Run-DMC, and "Run-CMD" – "CMD" stands both for "Camden" and "Cash, Money, Drugs" – became the unofficial symbol of the unoccupied city, seen in town on everything from T-shirts to a lovingly rendered piece of wall graffiti on crime-ridden Mount Ephraim Avenue.

Cops started calling in sick in record numbers, with absenteeism rates rising as high as 30 percent over the rest of 2011. Burglaries rose by a shocking 65 percent. The next year, 2012, little Camden set a record with 67 homicides, officially making it the most dangerous place in America, with 10 times the per-capita murder rate of cities like New York: Locals complained that policing was completely nonexistent and the cops were "just out here to pick up the bodies." The carnage left Camden's crime rate on par with places like Haiti after its 2010 earthquake, and with other infamous Third World hot spots, as police officials later noticed to their dismay when they studied U.N. statistics.

At times in 2011 and 2012, the entire city was patrolled by as few as 12 officers. Police triaged 911 calls like an overworked field hospital, sometimes giving up on property and drug crimes altogether, focusing their limited personnel mainly on gun crimes committed during daylight hours. Heading into 2013, Camden was sliding further and further out of police control. "If Camden was overseas, we'd have sent troops and foreign aid," says Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, a guy Chief Thomson refers to as his "wartime consigliere."

Then, this year, after two years of chaos, Christie and local leaders instituted a new reform, breaking the unions of the old municipal police force and reconstituting a new Metro police department under county control. The old city cops were all cut loose and had to reapply for work with the county, under new contracts that tightened up those collective-bargaining "excesses." The new contracts chopped away at everything from overtime to uniform allowances to severance pay, cutting the average cost per officer from $182,168 under the city force to $99,605 in the county force. As "the transfer" from a municipal police force to a county model went into effect last May, state money began flowing again, albeit more modestly. Christie promised $10 million in funding for the city and the county to help the new cops. Police began building up their numbers to old levels.

Predictably, the new Camden County-run police began to turn crime stats in the right direction with a combination of beefed-up numbers, significant investments in technology, and a cheaper and at least temporarily de-unionized membership. Whether the entire thing was done out of economic necessity or careful political calculation, Christie got what he wanted – county-controlled police forces seemed to be his plan from the start for places like Camden.

In fact, just a few months ago, Christie publicly touted Camden's new county force as the model he hopes to employ for Trenton, and perhaps some of Jersey's other crime-sick cities. (For a state with one of the highest median household incomes in America, New Jersey also has four of the country's biggest urban basket cases in Camden, Trenton, Paterson and Newark.) Local county officials, echoing Christie, called Camden the "police model of the future for New Jersey."

In recent months, Christie has visited Camden several times, making it plain that he puts the daring 2011 gambit here in his political win column. And not everyone in Camden disagrees. One ex-con I talked to in the city surprised me by saying he liked what Christie had done, and compared Camden's decades-long consumption of state subsidies to the backward incentive system he'd seen in prison. "In prison, you can lie in your bed all day long and get credit for good time toward release," he said, shaking his head. "You should have to do something other than lie there."

No matter what side of the argument you're on, the upshot of the dramatic change was that Camden would essentially no longer be policing itself, but instead be policed by a force run by its wealthier and whiter neighbors, i.e., the more affluent towns like Cherry Hill and Haddonfield that surround Camden in the county. The reconstituted force included a lot of rehires from the old city force (many of whom had to accept cuts and/or demotions in order to stay employed), but it also attracted a wave of new young hires from across the state, many of them white and from smaller, less adrenaline-filled suburban jurisdictions to the north and east.

And whereas the old city police had a rep for not wanting to get out of the car in certain bad neighborhoods, the new force is beginning to acquire an opposite rep for overzealousness. "These new guys," complains local junkie Mark Mercado, "not only will they get out of the car, they'll haul you in just for practice."

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Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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