New Jersey's top court ruled Tuesday that the public should have had a chance to vote on an ordinance that would have derailed the police department reboot in Camden, one of the nation's most crime-ridden places.
But the state Supreme Court's ruling has conditions that make it unlikely that major police force changes will be undone, underscoring a frustration that Camden community activists often express — that the city's institutions aren't quite democratic.
The case goes back to 2012, when Camden officials were working on disbanding the city's police department and replacing it with one run by the Camden County government. The changeover, which was finalized in 2013, meant the city would not be held to costly provisions of the old department's union contracts. That has resulted in a force with more officers on the street.
A group of city activists who had several concerns about the new force filed a petition to pass a city ordinance by petition. Their ordinance would have required the city to have its own police department. Local law passed by initiative — something uncommon in New Jersey — cannot be undone within their first three years without voters' approval.
Camden Mayor Dana Redd and other officials sued to prevent a vote, and a lower court agreed with them. An appeals court sided largely with the activists.
Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling is mixed, finding the citizens were right on principle in their contention that the matter could be voted on, but that it would be hard to make a change now.
With the new county-led department already in place, the court said in a unanimous ruling that the same measure could not be put to a public vote.
"The ordinance as drafted is inconsistent with current circumstances. Accordingly, the ordinance may no longer be supported by all of the citizens who backed it with their signatures, and it cannot meaningfully be evaluated by the voters," said the opinion by Justice Anne Patterson.
So to bring back the vote, there would need to be a different question on the ballot.
Further, the decision notes that any ordinance adopted in Camden would be subject to a modified veto by the state's Community Affairs commissioner because of an earlier law that gave the state some control over the running of the city in an attempt to revive Camden, which also ranks among the nation's most impoverished places.
The commissioner, Charles Richman, is an appointee of Gov. Chris Christie, who is a longtime champion of the police reconfiguration. The court said that the commissioner could explain on the ballot why he would veto the measure and consequences of doing so — including taking officers off the street and cutting state aid — but that voter approval would constitute an override of the veto.
Crime rates in Camden soared in 2011 and 2012 after police department layoffs that were put into place as the state's subsidy for Camden was reduced. Since the new department arrived, there's been a sharp drop in reported crime.
In one twist, Eulisis Delgado, one of the citizens who pushed for the vote and was a party to the lawsuit, has since become an outspoken advocate for the new police department.
Delgado could not be reached immediately. Anthony Valenti, a lawyer for the activists, said he didn't know what his clients would want to do next.
Camden's business administrator, Robert Corrales, praised the ruling, noting in a statement that the change in police forces has been linked to a "major, positive shift in public safety."
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