PATERSON, NJ - The impending layoffs of 125 city police officers - about 25 percent of the force - will take a heavy toll on the city's narcotics squad and detective bureau, cutting them almost in half. Other specialty units, like the warrant squad, community policing and CeaseFire, also will take hits.
That's all part of senior law enforcement officials' plan to replenish the ranks of the 180-officer street patrol division, which is being devastated by the layoffs that take effect at midnight on April 19.
In an attempt to prevent an outbreak of lawlessness in a city that already ranks among New Jersey's highest crime locations, police officials say they are trying to keep the patrol division as close to full strength as is possible.
Police brass outlined their strategy in a meeting with city council members on April 11. Worried about tipping off criminals, officials balk at disclosing exactly how the personnel in the police department will be redistributed after the layoffs. But more than a dozen interviews with ranking police officers and civilian officials provided an overview of how Paterson plans to handle the layoffs.
"Every division in the entire police department is going to be impacted by these layoffs,'' said Deputy Chief Danny Nichols. "Our first concern is that our patrol division has enough police officers to handle all the calls for service. If you pick up the phone and ask for a police officer, we're still going to come.''
By next week, the patrol division will undergo changes in its schedule and strategy to adjust to the layoffs, said Nichols, declining to provide details on those changes.
Steve Olimpio, president of Policemen's Benevolent Association, Local #1, warned that the layoffs will have a negative impact on public safety in the city.
"I hate to be all doom and gloom, but that's the reality of what we're looking at,'' said Olimpio.
"It's not good,'' said Councilman Julio Tavarez, a member of the public safety committee who attended Monday's strategy meeting. "You can forget about economic development. People aren't going to want to come here if it's not safe.''
The city imposed the police layoffs to close a historic budget deficit that eventually resulted in a 29-percent tax increase and terminations of almost 400 municipal employees, including the cops. The layoffs, along with the demotions of 34 sergeants and lieutenants, will save less than $1 million in this year's budget, partly because so much of the fiscal year already has passed. But they will save more than $5 million in fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, officials said.
Mayor Jeffrey Jones did not return a phone message seeking his comments for this story. At community meeting on March 21, Jones said he disagreed with critics who predict a crime wave because of the layoffs. "The question isn’t about having officers,'' the mayor said at the meeting. "The question is about how the officers are doing business.''
At the city's detective bureau, the new way of doing business has brought drastic changes. For an hour every morning and an hour every afternoon, detectives who normally work in plainclothes have been changing into uniform to go to street-corner posts to handle duties that used to be done by school crossing guards before they were laid off.
"How are they going to solve any cases like that?'' asked Olimpio.
The detective bureau, along with the narcotics squad, is losing about half its officers.
"As the weather starts getting warmer, the open-air drug markets that used to get shut down are going to flourish now,'' said Tavarez.
Recent police layoffs in Newark, which lost 162 officers, and Camden, which lost 168, were followed by sharp increases in crime, according to statistics issued by police unions in those cities. In an 11-week period after Newark's layoffs, robberies increased 30 percent, aggravated assaults 12 percent, burglaries 62 percent and shootings 65 percent compared to the same time period for the previous year, according to PBA stats. In Camden, aggravated assaults went up 71 percent and shootings 93 percent, the union said.
Nichols cautioned against viewing the crime increases as a direct result of the police layoffs in those cities. Crime statistic are far more complex than that, he said. For example, Nichols pointed out that Paterson has had the same number of police officers for the past several years, while its crime numbers have both risen and fallen.
"There's a lot of factors that go into crime statistics,'' Nichols said.
City activists who work with the police department's anti-crime efforts are hoping for the best.
'We're pleading with the neighborhoods to keep watch and to report anything they see,'' said Sylvia Farrar, a civilian active in the CeaseFire program. "It doesn't matter if you have fewer or more cops, it's up to the individuals in the neighborhood to create a safe environment.''
The Rev. Stafford Miller, also active in CeaseFire, has been praying overtime that somehow the police layoffs will be prevented. Miller knows many of the officers targeted for the layoffs through his involvement in the community policing program at the police academy. "Most of them have a real passion for serving the city,'' Miller said. "It would be a shame to lose them.''
The layoffs, Miller said, likely would mean a longer wait when people call police headquarters for help. Still, he said, he would not want outside law enforcement agencies to take over some of the Paterson police department's duties. "We don't want to see National Guards or state troopers on our streets,'' he said. "They don't know the people here.''
City officials have said they expect additional help from other law enforcement agencies, but they have not provided details of exactly what that might mean.
The Passaic County Sheriff's Department, for example, already conducts some street patrols and narcotic operations in Paterson. But sheriff's doesn't seem to be in position to fill the void being created by the city layoffs. The department lost 24 officers to budget cuts this year, said spokesman William Maer. The majority of the remaining 690 sheriff's officers are assigned to the county jail, he said.
"Right now, we're focusing on performing our core functions,'' said Maer. "We still have units working in the city and we're still doing patrols there. We'll do what's possible.''
Councilman William McKoy, chairman of the public safety committee, said he hoped the layoffs would make it easier for city officials to eliminate a controversial work schedule under which police officers work four days and then get four days off.
"It's a schedule that requires significantly more officers to carry out the patrols as opposed to a five-on, two-off schedule,'' McKoy said.
The police ranks could get a boost come July 1. The Jones administration has negotiated a deal with federal officials waiving the penalties the city faces for laying off police officers hired with federal grant money.
That deal would free up enough money for Paterson to rehire 25 police officers at the start of the next fiscal year in July. But it still must get approval from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the city's budget, and that approval has been pending for a month.
"I don't believe it's going to be a problem,'' said City Business Administrator Charles Thomas.