Elected officials stress the process is voluntary. Police fear a loss of jobs and local control at one of the biggest departments in the county.
By Matt Skoufalos
Since its establishment in 2013, the Camden County Police Department was always intended to become a force larger than its current Metro division, which serves Camden City.
On Tuesday, the county government released a preliminary study examining the efficiencies of expanding the Camden County police force to include Pennsauken Township on a contract basis.
Prepared by The Cordero Group, the consultancy behind the architecture of the Metro division, the report offers a pair of options: cut Pennsauken down to 69 officers, saving an estimated $14.5 million annually, or “optimize staffing assignments” with the current roster for an estimated $9.6 million in annual savings.
Under either scenario, the county police department controls everything from hiring and salaries to personnel policies and equipment, while the township get to specify “the manner of policing within its geographic boundaries…and the types of services to be provided.”
‘The decision is all theirs’
Camden County Freeholder Director Louis F. Cappelli, Jr. said that the report, which was offered to Pennsauken and paid for by the county government, represents proper due diligence by the township “in determining what’s best for Pennsauken.
“The decision is all theirs,” Cappelli, Jr. said. “We’re not forcing anything on them. We believe we can improve upon the service they’re receiving.”
The freeholder director said that instead of municipally controlled police, a regionalized force represents “the best approach to fighting crime” along a national model. He specified that Camden County police operations in Pennsauken “would be separate and apart from the Camden Metro operation,” as part of a region that could theoretically include Merchantville, as well.
“This would not be the creation of a Camden-Pennsauken regional police force,” Cappelli, Jr. said. “Pennsauken would be the first in its own region of policing.”
Cost savings driven by the agreement would come by aligning Pennsauken police contracts with those of officers in the Camden County police, Cappelli, Jr. said. Pensions are “identical” between the two departments, “and the benefits packages are very similar.
“All we’re saying is let’s be partners and let’s identify a community policing model that works best for Pennsauken,” Cappelli, Jr. said. “If they’re not interested, that’s fine too.”
Although the county has a standing offer with every municipality to prepare reports similar to that requisitioned by Pennsauken, no other towns have requested one, Cappelli, Jr. said, despite “some verbal discussions.”
The freeholder director said he is sympathetic to the anxiety created by exploring consolidation efforts, but that he stands behind the math that led to the formation of the (Presidentially blessed) Camden County police department.
“As it turns out, the report we produced for Camden was very accurate, and the predictions for the type of service we produced were accurate as well,” Cappelli, Jr. said.
“We as elected officials have an obligation to investigate any and all possible ways to deliver services at a cheaper cost as long, as the quality of those services are improved.”
‘We give good service to the community’
From home lock-outs to car accidents, Pennsauken Police offer a level of service that the Camden County Metro Police would be unable to match, Captain Michael Probasco said.
The township, which shares a majority of its borders with Camden City, is a place to which former Camden residents often relocate for improved police protection, he said.
“You call the police in Pennsauken, we come,” Probasco said. “We go to EMS calls. All our officers are trained in CPR. We just saved a guy over the weekend with Narcan.
“If you lock your keys in your car, we’ll come find you,” Probasco said. “Camden, they don’t come out for car accidents unless someone is injured.
“I can’t see any residents willing to give up those basic services,” he said.
Probasco described the department in which he started as a patrolman 34 years ago as one of the most heavily staffed in Camden County, which he believes has made it a target for efficiency improvements. With 82 officers currently on the rolls and approval to hire another four or five, manpower levels have been stable for years, he said, contracting only when faced with a handful of retirements.
(The department also has absorbed some eight former Camden City officers who declined to join the county Metro division when it was formed, Probasco added: “They’re working out very well for us.”)
The township has already saved some $800,000 by switching to a centralized, county-wide dispatch, Probasco said. But if the Pennsauken police merges with the county department at a leadership level, he fears a loss of ability to deploy his officers as necessary for the safety of Pennsauken residents.
“I think everything would be geared toward Camden,” the captain said. “When residents call here, that’s their main fear: how many boots on the ground are there going to be in Pennsauken?”
Probasco also spoke confidently about the strong working relationship he believes exists among Pennsauken residents, local government, and the township police force. He suggested that the county proposal could cause unnecessary tension in a department that is already looked upon favorably by the majority of residents.
“We maintain our officers,” he said. “The pay is fair. They have good working conditions; they have good equipment.
“We give good service to the community,” Probasco said. “They don’t want to change, and I really don’t think our town council wants to change either.”
‘This isn’t something you ram down people’s throats’
Pennsauken Mayor Rick Taylor cautioned that drawing any conclusions about the impact of the report or the willingness of the township government to act on it would be premature.
“It’s so in its fetal stages it’s not even funny,” Taylor said.
The mayor agreed with Probasco that “99 percent” of the 35,000 Pennsauken residents “would say [the police]do a fine job.”
Yet Taylor said that the local government has a fiduciary responsibility to drive cost savings wherever possible.
“I think our public service is second to none,” he said, but added that leaders are forced to choose between the adages of “Do you fix something that’s not broken?” or “Things always could use improvement.
“That’s a decision that the committee and our administration are going to have to make,” Taylor said.
Local finances are stable, Taylor said, citing a zero municipal budget increase in 2015 and shared-service arrangements—joint fire inspections with Collingswod and EMS services with Merchantville—as examples of the township holding the line.
At the same time, he said, “people will always complain about taxes going up, but they don’t want services to go down.
“The problem with local government is we’re dependent upon municipal aid from the state,” Taylor said. “When things go up for us, we have to make decisions. We have already done our part thus far, and down the road, we’ll certainly always look at avenues to help defray costs.”
Taylor said that residents shouldn’t expect a hard and fast decision on any potential police merger, adding that any consideration of the issue would be done with transparency and not at the expense of other local priorities.
“As soon as we got the report, our administrator gave the report to the police,” he said. “We’re thinking out loud so we can hear what they’re thinking.
“We have no timeline,” Taylor said. “We’re not going to drop everything else. Even if down the road we considered that, I would want us to have town meetings. This isn’t something you ram down people’s throats.”
Taylor said, too, that he is sympathetic to Probasco’s observation that the report came without a visit from a Cordero representative to Pennsauken.
“I understand where Captain Probasco’s coming from,” the mayor said. “I’m a retired educator. That would be like me forming an opinion of an administrator and a teaching staff without going in. If I just looked at test scores, that wouldn’t give me an understanding of how a school was run.
“We want all the facts aired out,” Taylor said. “Everything that shines isn’t necessarily gold.”
‘No issue with money’
Camden County spokesperson Dan Keashen said the Cordero report, although preliminary, provides “clear analysis” that joining the Pennsauken and Camden County Metro departments would offer “a considerable cost savings to Pennsauken” as well as “enhanced capacity and resource” for police services.
“The report speaks for itself to a large degree,” he said. “If Pennsauken wants to move forward and see a more detailed report, our consultant would absolutely come down and meet with the officers.”
Keashen also dismissed the notion that any expansion of the Camden County department is driven by sustainability concerns, whether grounded in financial or staffing issues. The Metro division has absorbed some 30 retirements in the past two years, the majority of which Keashen said are attributable to officers having hit their 25-year pension benchmarks.
“There’s no issue with money,” Keashen said. “Guys hit 25 years in any urban department—Philadelphia, Newark—they retire.”
Other officers that have departed the ranks of the metro division “have gone to either a higher level of law enforcement or they’ve joined a department that was closer to their geographical location,” he said, citing a number of new Police Academy hires who had been commuting to Camden City from as many as 90 minutes away.
Keashen also acknowledged that others have left the department—or the field of policing altogether—because of “the challenges of the job not being for them.
“The FOP president [Sgt. Bill Wiley] said it best when he said, ‘This is like going from college to the pros,’” Keashen said.
“Individuals are put in what are in many cases destabilized areas, and we are asking them to not only acclimate themselves with the area, but to assimilate with the community and be part of the community,” he said.
“To be out there in all types of weather, walking a beat, it’s challenging.”
The Camden County Metro Division will add another 31 officers when the academy graduates its 2015 class, bringing its total complement up to 390 by June 4, Keashen said.