The Camden County Police Department, even as it has received praise for reducing violent crime in the city of Camden, has struggled to retain officers since it was formed two years ago.Nearly 120 officers – including large swaths of recruiting classes – have resigned or retired, making the department’s turnover one of the highest in the state.
The attrition threatens to be an obstacle for the county-run force in its quest to build a strong relationship between officers and residents. President Obama is expected to discuss that relationship Monday when he visits Camden.
Police officials outside the city say that high turnover can make a department prone to mistakes, and that it limits the ability of officers to connect with residents.
County officials blame the turnover on some officers’ struggling to adjust from the police academy to Camden’s streets, historically ranked among the nation’s most violent. The county force, through its Metro Division, currently patrols only the city of Camden.Several current and former officers cite other reasons, including having to work extremely long hours and being disciplined for minor infractions such as wearing the wrong jacket or forgetting to salute a supervisor on the street.
They say the resignations are hurting morale.
“It’s something you’re not supposed to talk about,” said one veteran Camden officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the department. The officer said he knew of several officers in his squad departing for jobs in other towns this summer.
The resignations “are really jamming me up,” he said, alluding to staffing challenges they pose.
A Camden County spokesman said the department was limited by Civil Service laws and can’t require officers to serve for a set period of time.
Bill Wiley, who heads the police union for the rank-and-file, tied the turnover to new hires’ choosing different career paths, or wanting to be closer to their hometowns. Some are from more than 50 miles away.
“Going from the academy to working for the Camden police department is like going from college to the NFL,” he said. “It’s a very fast-paced environment. It’s not for everyone. Some find out late how hard it is.”
The number of officers – not including recruits in the current class at the police academy – stands at 359. If no other officers resign or retire before the class graduates, the overall number of officers will increase to nearly 400. The department’s ultimate goal is 411.
An analysis of the resignations shows that the average tenure of the officers who left was less than a year.
Of the 117 the county cited as departing, 27 retired and 90 resigned.
In Paterson, N.J., with a department of similar size to Camden, 15 officers resigned in the last two years. The Jersey City, N.J., department, double the size of Camden, says it had two. Atlantic City’s department says it had none.
Officers who resign can take up to a year to replace.
Paterson Police Chief Bill Fraher said background checks and the interview process generally take three to four months. Academy training there and in Camden takes an additional six months.
Fraher said that a department was more liable to make mistakes when new officers constantly arrive, and that it forces the remaining ones to shuffle around different positions.
“It’s like a juggling act,” he said. “It makes for a better, more efficient, more capable police department the more experience you have.”
Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The county force was created in May 2013 and replaced the disbanded city department in a move officials said was intended to slash costs and hire more officers.
Asked Friday about officers’ morale, Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen said: “The president’s coming. I’d say it’s pretty good.”
The White House said that Obama would speak at Camden’s police headquarters about efforts “to build trust between their department and the community they serve.”
In February, Thomson told a presidential panel that respectful interaction between officers and residents “is how one of the country’s most unhealthy cities rapidly reversed course and with each passing day has a more promising prognosis.” Last week, Mayor Dana Redd called the department a “national model” of policing.
Among the ranks, some are less upbeat about their work environment.
One former officer, who spent about a year in Camden before transferring to another department in New Jersey, said officers were written up for minor offenses such as forgetting to wear a hat or to salute a lieutenant while on foot patrol.
The officers’ complaints mirror those of some residents, who have voiced concerns about being ticketed for petty offenses such as riding a bicycle without a bell and loitering on street corners.
According to an individual familiar with the discipline process, each write-up goes into an officer’s personnel file, and can eventually lead to more serious discipline.
The former officer who left after about a year described working 16-hour shifts from 7 a.m. to almost midnight, and then being told to return in the early morning the next day.
“I was exhausted,” said the former officer, who asked not to be named because he said he didn’t want Camden officials coming after him at his new job. “Sometimes, honestly, I kind of wanted to sleep in the police parking lot.”
Other former Camden officers have transferred to departments in the vicinity of Camden, such as Gloucester City and Haddonfield. Those officers either did not return calls or declined to comment.
One potential disincentive may be pay, the former officer indicated, saying that he started at an amount several thousand less than what he was initially promised.
The starting salary on the Camden force, $31,407, is far lower than in some nearby towns, such as Pennsauken, where it is $47,000.
Colandus “Kelly” Francis, president of the Camden County chapter of the NAACP, who has kept track of the departures and is a longtime opponent of the county-run force, said the department had become a “revolving door.”
“It has a negative impact, because the most effective police officers are police officers who know the community and know the people,” he said.
“It’s just outrageous,” he said. “It’s outrageous what’s happened.”
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