Trenton latest NJ city hit with police layoffs

TRENTON, N.J. - September 16, 2011

The layoffs of 105 Trenton officers - which came in addition to the recent retirements of three officers, who will not be replaced - will help the city close a budget deficit that grew partly out of slashed aid from the state government.

But the layoffs, based on seniority leave a department trying to figure out how to fight crime.

"I can't make up the work of 108 guys," lamented Acting Police Capt. Mark Kieffer just before an emotional ceremony in front of the department headquarters in which about 60 laid-off officers set their boots on the sidewalk and received one last salute.

Trenton and New Jersey's other urban centers have long relied on extra money from the state government to balance their budgets. In Trenton, that aid in the past has accounted for more than one-fourth of the city's budget.

The task has become much more difficult as the state has cut its aid over the last two years. Mayor Tony Mack said the city received about $55 million in special aid from the state last year. This year, the figure was about $27 million.

Police layoffs were originally planned for last year, but Mack called them off, hoping that he could wrangle some more money to keep the officers.

"We wanted to make sure that was our last option," he said.

Mack said Friday that he could not hold out any longer.

He said the layoffs would save the city $4 million in the current fiscal year and more in the future when the city is off the hook for paying unemployment benefits for the laid-off officers. Officials expect that about 18 officers can be reinstated next month through a federal grant and hope more grants will help return additional officers later.

Cities across the state reluctantly laid off police over the past year for similar reasons to Trenton's. The state's largest city, Newark, trimmed its force by 15 percent late last year. Atlantic City, home of the state's casino's industry, and Camden, its most impoverished and crime-ridden city, have also had deep cuts but have been able to cobble together money, largely through grants, to rehire many officers.

The effect on crime in those cities is not clear. Experts on criminology are split on the degree to which police cuts lead to more crime.

Mack is also asking voters to approve property tax increases above the 2 percent state cap to help fill the city's budget gap, which was projected to be about $9 million this year before the police layoffs.

The mayor said he's asking state police to do more to protect the downtown areas where thousands of state workers have offices. The department has also demoted 27 officers, a move that pushes many detectives and some department brass back to the street.

Mack said more officers will actually be on patrol once a restructuring is complete - though that will come at the cost of investigative manpower.

Laid-off police weren't so optimistic about the city's futures or their own.

Some were thinking of looking for police jobs in growing cities in the South or West. Some were at a loss. Some noted that the younger officers, the ones they call "game-players" who are most fit to chase down criminals on the street, were the ones who would be gone in a layoff system based on seniority. The layoffs cut the jobs of all officers who have been on the force for less than seven years.

The layoffs run deep for families, too. Officer Cathy Santiago, who turned in her gun Friday, said her husband, brother, brother-in-law and cousin were also laid off. Her father and uncle survived the cuts.

Officer Maria Chell-Starskey, who was laid off after six years, said she's worried about the safety of her husband, a detective who is being returned to patrols. "We're losing the streets," she said. "We might as well just hand the city over to the gang members."

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