CAMDEN, N.J. — Some firefighters turned in their helmets and police officers their badges Tuesday as part of deep municipal layoffs destined to further erode the quality of life in Camden, already one of the nation’s most impoverished and crime-ridden cities.
About 335 workers, representing one-sixth of the local government work force, lost their jobs, according to Mayor Dana Redd. It was worst in the public safety departments, where nearly half the police force and close to one-third of the city’s firefighters were laid off.
Laid-off firefighters walked eight blocks together from the police union hall to Fire Department headquarters, snaking past City Hall, then lined up their helmets in front of the building, picked them back up and started to turn them in along with their other gear.
“It’s one of the worst days in the history of Camden,” said Ken Chambers, president of the firefighters union.
Redd blamed the public safety employee cuts on their unions, saying they have not been willing to make job-saving concessions or accept the reality that the state government will no longer bail out the city as it has for the past two generations.
“Instead of protecting and serving the city, the residents of Camden, they’re choosing to protect their high salaries,” she said.
The mayor said she was willing to continue negotiating with unions to try to reach cost savings that would allow the city to bring back some of the laid-off workers.
Redd said a proposal to the rank-and-file police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, was to be voted on Wednesday. She would not say exactly what the proposal entailed or how many jobs it could save. But she said that if the unions agree to concessions, about 100 police officers and most of the firefighters could be brought back.
Chambers said residents should not expect to be safe as the number of fire companies is reduced. He said the union will continue to meet with city officials to try to reach a deal under which some firefighters could be brought back.
Police officers had begun turning in their badges Monday as it became clear that no last-minute deal was going to save many jobs.
Located directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Camden is rampant with open drug-dealing, prostitution and related crimes. More than half of Camden’s 80,000 residents, mostly black and Hispanic, live in poverty.
A local pastor says “the fear quotient has been raised,” and a police union took out a full-page newspaper advertisement last week warning that Camden would become a “living hell” if layoffs were not averted.
The city was the nation’s second-most dangerous based on 2009 data, according to CQ Press, which compiles such rankings. Camden ranked first the previous two years. In 2009, the city had 2,380 violent crimes per 100,000 residents — more than five times the national average, the FBI said.
The anti-crime volunteer group Guardian Angels says it will patrol Camden, as it has Newark, where there were major police layoffs in November.
The Fire Department has already been relying on help from volunteer departments in neighboring towns. Interim Fire Chief David Yates, who retired Jan. 1, has warned that that layoffs will increase response times.