Small town cops need stimulus too

Camden, Delaware is dialing 911 to the White House to keep its 12-man force on the beat.

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By Aaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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Camden Police Chief William Bryson says he needs a 15-cop force to properly police his town.
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Shoplifters beware: Camden recently constructed holding cells for petty thieves.
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Camden Mayor Robert Mooney says the area's tax base must grow in step with the police force.

CAMDEN, Del. (CNNMoney.com) -- Camden, Del., is a budding bedroom community, not a magnet for capital crime.

The small but bustling town hasn't had a murder since 1993. But its population has nearly tripled to about 5,800 over the last decade, and local officials say there are enough traffic accidents and petty incidents to keep Camden's 12-man police force working 12-hour shifts.

"We don't have gang wars; we don't have murders," said Jim Plumley, the town's vice mayor and financial officer. "But it's enough that it keeps our officers busy all day."

Camden is applying for federal stimulus funding to beef up its police force. Plumley said the town recently laid off two police officers and will have to lay off two more if it doesn't get federal funding by July 1, the starting date of its fiscal year. Camden wants to bring the force back up to its 2007 level of 15 officers.

As part of his $787 billion stimulus plan to save or create at least 3.5 million jobs nationwide, President Barack Obama has allocated $1 billion for the Community Oriented Policing Services program, a funding mechanism to put more officers on the street. Through COPS, Obama wants to add or protect from layoff up to 6,000 officers, sheriffs and deputies across the country.

The needs of communities vary widely. The mid-sized city of Shreveport, La., with a population of about 200,000, is seeking funding for 100 police officers, which would boost its 520-officer force by 19%. New York City, with more than 8 million residents, is seeking COPS funding for as many as 2,000 police officer positions, to add to its force of nearly 38,000.

Camden, which just relocated its municipal and police offices into a newly-built $3 million building, must apply for funding by the April 14 deadline. Vice Mayor Plumley said the town is applying for $1,073,730 from COPS.

The town has already received a smaller slice of funding - $17,000 - from the $2 billion in Byrne Justice Assistance Grants included in another part of the federal stimulus program. That comes from the $10.9 million in JAG funding that has been provided to the entire state, and it's generally used to purchase police equipment, according to the Delaware Police Chief's Council.

Police blotter

In Camden last year, felonies included three rapes, three robberies, six auto thefts, 16 aggravated assaults, 11 burglaries and 105 larcenies, said Police Chief William Bryson, a retired Delaware state trooper. While that's low by big-city standards, he said it's plenty of serious crime for a small force.

Occasional reports of domestic violence, numerous traffic accidents and "our fair share of DUIs" are mostly what keep the officers busy, said Bryson.

Camden, which is just southwest of state capital Dover, serves as a peninsular crossroads between Wilmington and Philadelphia to the north and the sprawl of Baltimore and Washington to the west. An extensive coastline with beaches and state parks makes the area especially popular during the summertime.

Motorists crowd onto Route 13, which runs the length of the three-state Delmarva peninsula and directly through Camden. It also runs past the town's 24-hour Wal-Mart, which police described as an interstate shoplifting mecca.

"We're getting shoplifters left and right," said Bryson. "We had people coming from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and upper Delaware to this store because it was the easiest store to steal from. We had fraudulent credit cards brought down here. It's definitely an organized effort."

During a recent visit to the department's holding cells, police were processing an alleged Wal-Mart shoplifter from Maryland. Bryson said the problem has softened somewhat in recent months, partly because Wal-Mart has become more vigilant in weeding out thieves. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman declined to comment.

During that same visit to the department, another officer displayed a handful of blanks for a .30-06 rifle, which he said was confiscated from a student at the local 6-through-12 school.

Bryson said he was also concerned about protecting the town's large retired population. "A lot of criminals will prey on the elderly," he said.

Betting on COPS

The federally funded COPS plan isn't just free money for the states and cities. It does come with strings attached.

The COPS program would provide enough funding to support a police officer's salary for three years. In return, a recipient town must match this funding with a commitment to pay for the fourth year. Towns must be prudent about hiring new officers, because they'll eventually foot the bill themselves.

With its application for federal funding, the town of Camden is betting on growth. But Mayor Robert Mooney is concerned growth would continue to slow down, in tandem with a weaker tax base and the sluggish economy.

In recent years, retirees have flocked to Camden and other Delaware towns to take advantage of the low state taxes, said Mooney, and several subdivisions have sprung up as planned communities for the new population. But the activity is decelerating in step with the nation's ruptured housing market. Mooney said that a planned 132-unit retired community was canceled in 2007, the year that the nation's current recession began.

That's potentially bad news for Camden, said the mayor, because a stagnant tax base won't support a 15-man force, and the town could find itself "stuck with an unfunded mandate."

"It's wonderful that we have the opportunity [for federal funding], but we want to be cautious," Mooney said. To top of page

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