Fewer Snouts in the Trough

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“What happens when you lay off nearly half of the police in one of the most dangerous cities in America?” begins a recent account of personnel cutbacks by the municipal government of Camden, New Jersey.

My guess would be this: The crime rate — as experienced by the affected public, rather than measured by the local government — will go down, and the public appetite will be whetted for further personnel cuts. This is because the Camden Police Department — which recently laid off 167 of its 360 officers — has long been a major source of crime, rather than a deterrent to the same.

New Jersey is one of the wealthiest states in the soyuz, but it is also afflicted with a large and immensely powerful population of unionized tax feeders.

On January 19, a New Jersey Superior Court Judge refused to grant an injunction sought by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) to reinstate the 167 officers who were laid off by Camden. On the same day, the union rejected a proposed compromise that would have reinstated 100 officers to the force. The deal would involve three days a month of unpaid furloughs for patrol officers for six months, followed by one unpaid monthly furlough day for the following year.

This arrangement would amount to a modest pay cut, but it shattered against the FOP’s impregnable sense of privilege. As commentator George Berkin pointed out, the union had erroneously assumed that it could “get a court to trump economics” — or, at least, that it could browbeat Camden City Hall into devising some way to extract wealth from the productive on its behalf. The police unions have become accustomed to getting whatever they want. For example: In New Jersey, it’s become standard practice for police to use their tax-funded health plans to pay for illegal steroid treatments.

Camden County is among the state’s poorest subdivisions, with an official (which is to say, understated) unemployment rate of 16.3 percent, a per capita income of about $23,300, and a median annual household income of roughly $48,000. Its municipal government confronts a $26.5 million budget shortfall.

The average Camden police officer receives $144,000 in salary and benefits, most of it paid for by taxpayers elsewhere in the state. Since 2003, Camden has been under the fiscal supervision of Trenton, which provides more than 80 percent of the city’s operating budget. Over the past seven years the state government has lavished nearly a quarter of a billion dollars on Camden in the name of “economic revitalization” and “transitional” funding.

Five years before Trenton assumed responsibility for Camden’s finances, the state took control of the Camden Police Department following the resignation of Police Chief William Hill. This left the department “without a person clearly in charge” in the midst of a wide-ranging corruption probe.

At the time of Chief Hill’s resignation, a federal grand jury was investigating allegations that a clique of corrupt Camden police officers had operated a shakedown racket targeting local cocaine dealers, thereby helping the market prosper in exchange for a cut of the proceeds. One of the first results of that inquiry was an increased attrition rate for the Camden PD as about one-ninth of its force of about 460 officers suddenly retired, claimed their pensions, and — perhaps most importantly — sealed their personnel files.

Camden County Prosecutor Lee Solomon negotiated an agreement with the president of the local police union, Detective Dan Morris, permitting the investigation to have access to personnel records of officers — both active and retired — who served on the force from 1997 on. “The prosecutor has assured the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] the confidentiality of these files will not be compromised,” Morris announced in 2000.

Morris had access to those files as well, and there’s reason to believe that he gleaned critical intelligence from them — which he used to create his own little protection racket, which he operated for several years before retiring on disability last January at the age of 46.

Last September, Morris pleaded guilty to multiple charges outlined in a multi-count federal indictment. As commander of a five-officer Special Operations unit, Morris committed numerous criminal offenses, including illegal searches and seizures of property, theft, extortion, perjury, and various kinds of assault.

The federal indictment against Morris’s subordinates describes their Special Operations unit as a criminal conspiracy that planted evidence to justify false arrests, routinely lied about the quantity of narcotics seized in raids in order to “expose the arrestees to greater penalties,” regularly bartered drugs for sundry favors, and made a habit of stealing money and drugs. Public exposure of the crimes committed by Morris and his little street gang led to the dismissal of 185 drug cases, and the release of dozens of people who had been wrongfully imprisoned.

In April 2007, Benjamin Daye — who was 20 at the time — was stopped and assaulted by Morris and his goon squad. An illegal search of Daye’s car failed to turn up any contraband and the terrified young man couldn’t provide any information on local dealers — so the police planted drugs in the car and arrested Daye, who served nearly three years in prison before the case was dropped.

Joel Barnes, who spent nearly a year and a half behind bars, had a very similar experience. Two officers with the Special Operations unit, Robert Bayard and Antonio Figueroa, invaded Barnes’s home, demanding to know “where the s**t is at.” When Barnes truthfully replied that there were no illegal drugs on the premises, one of them pulled a small bag of cocaine from his own pockets and told Barnes, “Tell us where the s**t [is] at and we’ll make this disappear.” When Barnes repeated that he didn’t have any drugs, the officers charged him with unlawful possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute in a “school zone” — a charge that could have led to a 20-year prison sentence.

“I felt helpless and didn’t know what to do,” Barnes recalls. “I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I also knew that the officers had all of the power and I had none.”

Morris and his Special Operations squad are generally referred to as a “rogue” unit, implying that their criminal conduct was anomalous. Given the pervasive corruption of the Camden PD, the term “rogue” would more properly be applied to Rolan Carter. In 2008, Carter was fired from the force for “insubordination” as a result of an incident in which he attempted to arrest a man wanted on four outstanding warrants.

Carter pulled the man over for using a cell phone while driving. As he ran a background check two plainclothes officers materialized and insisted that the driver was a police informant and should be released immediately. While Carter discussed the matter with the plainclothes cops, a police sergeant arrived and ordered him to let the driver go. Still unconvinced that this was the “proper procedure,” Carter called his own command sergeant, who instructed him to do as the other officers demanded.

Six weeks later, Carter — who had received multiple commendations for valor — was charged with insubordination and cashiered from the force. But his problems had actually begun more than a year earlier.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, in January 2007, Carter was transferred from a patrol squad “when he raised concerns about one supervisor, Sgt. Dan Morris.” After Carter was removed from the squad, he was replaced by Officer Jason Stetser, who is now facing multiple criminal charges for his actions as part of Morris’s “rogue” Special Operations squad.

Carter didn’t lose his job because of personnel cut-backs; he was fired because he displayed symptoms of personal integrity. And his lawsuit against the Camden PD is one of at least ten filed by former officers describing “a department rife with cronyism” in which “commanders create a hostile and discriminatory atmosphere and seek retaliation against those perceived as defiant,” observes the Inquirer.

In addition to the lawsuits filed by former Camden police officers, the city is dealing with up to thirty active or potential lawsuits by victims of the Morris-led criminal syndicate — with dozens more likely to come. It is possible that Camden’s municipal government will soon suffer the same fate that befell the one in charge of Maywood, California.

Buried beneath a deluge of civil rights lawsuits and settlement costs incurred by police misconduct, Maywood lost its liability insurance coverage and had to contract with a neighboring town for basic municipal services. As it happens, that neighboring town was Bell, California — which, it was discovered, had an even more extravagantly corrupt municipal government. I suspect that entertaining little revelations of this kind — in California, New Jersey, and all points in between — will abound as the economic collapse accelerates.

The Camden PD, following the example of law enforcement agencies in cash-strapped California cities such as Oakland and Sacramento, has announced that it will be rationing its services by refusing to deal with “minor” matters, such as non-injury vehicle accidents and petty theft. This announcement is intended to inspire public fear. It may have exactly the opposite effect.

Helene Pierson, executive director of Heart of Camden, a neighborhood development corporation, recalls that when her group was created several years ago it intended to be a “partner” with the police force. She and others “bought into the [idea] that police are stretched really thin, that they try really hard, that they need extra help.” Much of what she has seen — including dozens of cases in which people were falsely imprisoned in the service of a criminal racket run by the cops — has disabused Pierson of such notions.

In Camden — and, for that matter, everywhere else — the government police force has been a catalyst for crime, rather than a deterrent to it. There’s every reason to believe that fewer snouts in the trough would mean less crime on the streets.

William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

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