I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Shorter @tomamoran: We Had To Destroy Camden to Save it

The fact that Tom Moran gave himself gobs of print space in the op-ed section of today's Star-Ledger solely for the purpose of kissing South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross's posterior pretty much tells us all we need to know about that newspaper's sad decline.

But I just want to point out a few things for the record that Moran, as usual, completely misses:

- Let's start with Moran's rather selective memory about the history of policing and Camden:
For the drug dealers and gangs, things got even better when Camden was hit by the double-whammy of the Great Recession and cuts in state aid. City leaders raised taxes by 23 percent in 2011, but with so little property to tax, it wasn’t enough. 
They went begging to the police for concessions, but the union wouldn’t budge. So despite the crisis in violence, nearly half the force was laid off in 2013. Violence, predictably, exploded. Response time mushroomed to 60 minutes.
You'll notice that Moran's construction, true to form, glosses over the massive cuts in aid to Camden Chris Christie made -- all while lowering taxes on the wealthy and handing out tax goodies to corporations -- and instead places most of the blame on public workers.

Moran goes on to catalog the many alleged abuses of Camden's Finest, neglecting to mention that these brave men and women went out every damn day into what is arguably the most dangerous city in America, risking their lives. When's the last time Moran ever wrote an op-ed thanking these people for their work, instead of publicly shaming them?

I won't pretend there aren't bad cops and I won't pretend there weren't abuses -- I honestly don't know if there were. But Moran's blithe dismissal of the police is typical of his smug attitude toward unionized public workers: if there's a fiscal problem, it's always our fault.

It never, ever crosses Moran's mind that maybe if we raised taxes on folks like Norcross and his other billionaire buddy, David Tepper, cities like Camden wouldn't face a continuing string of crises.

- If you really want to know the story of the Camden police, read Matt Taibbi's excellent article last year for Rolling Stone:
The city for decades hadn't been able to pay even for its own cops, so it funded most of its operating budget from state subsidies. But once Christie assumed office, he announced that "the taxpayers of New Jersey aren't going to pay any more for Camden's excesses." In a sweeping, statewide budget massacre, he cut municipal state aid by $445 million. The new line was, people who paid the taxes were cutting off the people who didn't. In other words: your crime, your problem. 
The "excesses" Christie was referring to included employment contracts negotiated by the police union. A charitable explanation of the sweet deal Camden gave its cops over the years was that the police union had an unusually strong bargaining position. "Remember, this was the only police force in South Jersey whose members regularly had to risk their lives," says retired Rutgers-Camden professor Howard Gillette. The less-charitable say these deals were the result of a hey-it-isn't-our-money-anyway subsidy-mongering. Whatever the cause, until Christie came along, the Camden police had a relatively rich contract, with overtime up the wazoo and paid days off on birthdays. If a cop worked an overnight, he got a 12 percent "shift enhancement" bump, which made sense because of the extreme danger. But an officer who clocked in at noon under the same agreement still got an extra four percent. "Every shift was enhanced," says a spokesman for the new department. 
But a big reason that Christie hit Camden's police unions so hard was simply that he could. He'd wanted to go after New Jersey urban schools, which he derided as "failure factories." But a series of state Supreme Court rulings based on a lawsuit originally filed on behalf of students in Camden and three other poor communities in the Eighties – Abbott v. Burke, a landmark case that would mandate roughly equal per-pupil spending levels across New Jersey – made cuts effectively impossible. The courts didn't offer similar protection to police budgets, though. By New Year's 2011, the writing was on the wall. After Christie announced his budget plans, panicked city leaders got together, pored over their books and collective-bargaining agreements, and realized the unthinkable was about to happen. Camden, a city that even before any potential curtailing of state subsidies made Detroit or East St. Louis seem like Martha's Vineyard, was about to see its police force, one of its biggest expenditures, chopped nearly in half. 
On January 18th, 2011, the city laid off 168 of its 368 police officers, kicking off a dramatic, years-long, cops-versus-locals, house-to-house battle over a few square miles of North American territory that should have been national news, but has not been, likely because it took place in an isolated black and Hispanic ghost town. [emphasis mine]
The New York Times, back in 2011, reported on how the cuts imperiled the city:
But after the layoffs of 163 police officers, Camden is feeling the impact. Callers to 911 who report things like home burglaries or car break-ins are asked to file a report over the phone or at police headquarters; officers rarely respond in person. “If it doesn’t need a gun and a badge at that location,” officers are not sent, the city’s police chief, J. Scott Thomson, said last week. 
Residents have taken their own precautionary measures. One homeowner, Randolph Norfleet, has used the heavy snow this winter as a deterrent to local drug dealers, shoveling each storm’s accumulation onto the footpath where the dealers lurked alongside his home. 
Police headquarters now sits nearly empty, its front reception window sometimes closed, as most of the department’s staff has been pushed onto the street for patrol duty. Detectives cannot devote as much time to investigations; a widely praised bicycle unit was disbanded. Even the canine unit lost two of its three dogs. 
The layoffs of 163 officers came at a time when the South Jersey city of 80,000, long a symbol of urban blight — it has no movie theater, few supermarkets and a severe shortage of jobs — had finally started to feel safer, residents say. In each of the last two years, Camden recorded fewer than 40 murders, significantly less than the 54 murders of 2008, when the city was ranked the most dangerous in America, according to a widely quoted survey. 
Then a $14 million deficit in the Police Department’s budget, combined with failed union negotiations, led to the unthinkable: laying off officers in a city that clearly could benefit from more police, not less. The layoffs left Camden with 204 police officers, its smallest department since 1949, when a mentally ill man, Howard Unruh, shot to death 13 of his neighbors in East Camden. 
Chief Thomson, 39, has cut his salary by $15,000 and hits the street himself — he personally has made about five arrests since the layoffs. 
Still, at times, the department is fielding as few as a dozen patrol cars during the day, according to three current officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss department staffing. 

Two takeaways: first, the takeover of the Camden police was never about "reforming" the department. Chris Christie wanted to slash Camden's police costs so he could slash taxes on the wealthy -- period. Let's not pretend for a second there was anything else going on.

Second: how many people in Camden literally died so Christie could play games with the city's budget? If anyone really believed the Camden police -- again, assuming a higher level of risk than any other force in the region -- had somehow become too fat and lazy on the backs of New Jersey's taxpayers, that's one thing.

But it's insane to think the only way to reform the contract was to decimate the police and let Camden become a war zone. Camden is not Bến Tre; it didn't have to be destroyed to save it. The city, according to the Times, had actually made some progress before Christie came in and busted the police union.

The thought that Chris Christie destroyed an American city's police department, and put tens of thousands of lives at risk, just so he could bust a union should not make Tom Moran want to cheer -- it should make him feel disgusted.

- I don't know what George Norcross's role was in all this; Taibbi doesn't mention him once in his article, and Moran doesn't clearly state how Norcross influenced the deal. But Moran, as always, doesn't understand how to measure the outcomes:
From 2012 to 2014, the rates of murder and rape have dropped by half. Assaults with guns have dropped by nearly one-third, and robberies are down 12 percent. Police response time has dropped to 4.5 minutes.
Tom, the appropriate comparison is not from 2012, after Christie gutted the police force; the appropriate comparison is to the time before Christie callously slashed aid to the city. Again, the Times reported the city was on the right track.

An actual journalist would look into whether that's true.

- And an actual journalist wouldn't let stuff like this fall down into the memory hole:
For several years, even as the Camden city administration warned that it was unable to financially support its police department, more than half of $12 million in federal and state grants that poured in during that time lay unused.
Most of that money couldn't be used because the city failed to keep police staffing at levels required by the grants.
But more than $500,000 in grant money that the city was free to use sat around for two years until recently when the police department purchased various items, including new cars, portable radios, and tires, according to an Inquirer analysis of police-related grants the city has received since 2009.
In addition to the unused grant money, the city also had $1.8 million in money from a 2001 municipal bond issue lying unused that it recently decided to divert from the fire department to fixing the police administration building.
The beneficiary of the city's newfound largesse is the new Camden County Police Department, whose metro division took over policing in the city this month.
The city has leased the administration building to the county for $1, and it has also transferred the former department's equipment to the county for $1.
"It's amazing how we say we don't have money and now all of a sudden we have all this money to spend," said Councilman Brian Coleman, who has been critical of the way the new county police force was assembled. [emphasis mine]
Amazing, indeed. And amazing Tom Moran never thought to ask Norcross about any of this.

- Finally, what would a Tom Moran column be without an ode to charter schools?
Norcross had seen that state takeovers in Newark, Paterson and Jersey City did not lead to dramatic improvements. And he saw that the rapid growth of charters in Newark had fed a political backlash that threatens the whole reform effort.
“You can learn from the mistakes other people make,” he says. 
His crew came up with Renaissance schools, a hybrid between conventional ones and charters. These are neighborhood schools where local kids are assigned, as in traditional schools. But Norcross recruited the most successful charter organizations to run them. So you get the innovation, but not the trauma of shifting kids to strange neighborhoods, as in Newark. 
“When George came knocking, we politely said, ‘No thanks,’” says Drew Martin, who is running one of three new Renaissance schools in the city. 
Martin is part of the KIPP network, a charter chain that is working miracles in Newark, where its one high school sends more African-American males to college than the entire city of Camden does.
We've been over this about a million times: KIPP/TEAM may be a fine school, but it is not "working miracles." It serves a different student population, with fewer special needs students than NPS. It benefits from serving a larger proportion of children who, while certainly in economic disadvantage, are not in the deeper disadvantage found in most NPS schools.

Another charter operator coming into Camden, Uncommon Schools, has very high rates of attrition. Mastery, the third charter management organization, is well-known for its discipline practices, requiring "submission, obedience, and self-control."

It's also worth pointing out that TEAM spends quite a bit on its schools and students. This is a good thing, but it certainly tempers any claims of "working miracles."

But acknowledging any of this wouldn't get Tom Moran the story he wanted, would it? Because Moran isn't so much a journalist as a scriptwriter. He makes movies starring brave, noble plutocrats like George Norcross, and evil shadowy villains like police and teachers unions.

I'll admit that the legacy of George Norcross is complex. It's hard to imagine where Camden would be today without Cooper Health Systems. Norcross's machine keeps South Jersey in the Democratic column, and that has national implications. I'm even willing to wait and see what happens with the Renaissance schools, although I will never relent in pointing out that Camden's own citizens should have made the call as to whether they wanted to charterize their district or not.

But Tom Moran's column today is not a serious exploration of Norcross's legacy. It's just another worthless paean to wealth; another useless smooch on the rear-end of plutocracy, at the expense of unionized public workers.

No wonder the Star-Ledger continues to circle down the drain...

Tom Moran never met a billionaire he didn't love!

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