Plan to cut police coverage in Camco parks draws fire

Camden County is cutting overnight police coverage at its 22 parks, drawing the ire of police chiefs across the county who say they lack the money and manpower to fill in the gaps.

The police chiefs also say the changes to the Camden County Park Police were made without enough warning and consultation, and there are outstanding jurisdictional questions at parks that sit in more than one town.

The changes went into effect last weekend at all county parks except Lakeland, a 600-acre complex with a hospital and juvenile detention center in Gloucester Township. The mayor and the police chief there are actively opposing the move, so the county is temporarily continuing overnight coverage.

"It was just a possibility and now all of a sudden they just go and do it? Without discussing anything with us, the towns affected?" asked Haddonfield Police Chief Richard Tsonis, who is also the president of the Camden County Police Chiefs Association.

"It's all convoluted. No one really understands how we're supposed to handle it. . . . Do they think all crime stops at midnight at county parks?"

Camden County officials say that while crime doesn't stop at midnight, it has historically been minimal at the parks, including Lakeland. The plan moves officers from the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift to the day shift, when the parks are more populated and crime is more prevalent.

"It just makes sense to put these people on duty when the parks are being used," said Ross Angilella, the county administrator. "We're talking about a couple of [overnight] incidents a week. That's what we're talking about."

Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said there also may be some cost-savings related to overtime.

"Other than that, what we're doing is providing more efficient coverage on the hours when the public is using the parks," he said.

Cappelli said local police officers often are already the first-responders, and he is "not aware of anyone being upset."

But police chiefs interviewed said they are indeed upset, and they're concerned about the time and cost of doing extra paperwork and handling investigations.

And some said they weren't even told of the plan.

"To tell you the truth I haven't been officially notified other than receiving the news release...," Camden Police Chief Ed Hargis said Wednesday. The city has three county parks, including the marina.

Cappelli, however, said he personally spoke to the mayor of every affected town. And the chief of the Camden County Park Police called every police chief, he said.

Cappelli said local overnight coverage is more efficient than the previous arrangement, with three Park Police officers handling nearly 1,500 acres of parkland, from Camden to Winslow.

Plus, he said, the decision is based on a 2003 study by the International Association of Police Chiefs, which found that crime at Camden County parks is declining and resources could be concentrated in the daytime.

It said increases in workload for local police would be "negligible."

But the report also said that if the county downsized its coverage, it should be formalized in a memorandum of understanding with the affected municipalities.

That's not necessary, Cappelli said.

"There's a legal obligation of the local police department to apply police coverage of the parks in their jurisdiction," he said.

The controversy is most heated in Gloucester Township, where the Lakeland complex claims more than a third of all park police calls, according to the report.

Lakeland has a range of county facilities that are inhabited around the clock, including a hospital with psychiatric units, a juvenile detention center and an animal shelter.

Earlier this year, the Gloucester Township council overrode a mayoral veto and passed an ordinance to extend one its fire districts to include Lakeland. The county will not pay a fee.

Before that, the county provided fire coverage at Lakeland.

The chiefs say the county seems to be passing costs down the line.

"And we're not really in a position right now to take on this responsibility," said Berlin Police Chief Michael Hayden. The township does not have county parks in its vicinity, but as president of the New Jersey Association of Chiefs of Police, Hayden has heard many complaints.

Gloucester Township Police Chief Edward Smith and Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton are expected to meet with the township council Monday and offer a cost estimate of covering Lakeland. They will then meet with county officials and try to convince them to continue policing.

Smith said the department already struggles to cover its 25 square miles and 68,000 people. It is 56 officers below state police-recommended strength.

"They're not even saying they're willing to pay us, and you can't just arbitrarily say you're going to leave your eight hours of responsibility and put it on somebody else," Mayor Cindy Rau-Hatton said. "It defies logic."

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Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 856-779-3919 or at mkatz@phillynews.com.