As layoff days approached, officers turned in their badges and lined up their boots on city sidewalks to symbolize what was being lost. Some officers took jobs on growing police forces in places like Nashville, Tenn.
Their unions have said the cutbacks will directly cause crime in all categories to spike. While that could be true, it's a hard case to prove.
In Camden, for instance, reported crime has been up in almost all categories this year compared with 2010 and 2009. But crime has multiple causes, and experts caution that it's hard to determine how much of the increase could be because of layoffs.
The comprehensive arrest data collected by the New Jersey courts provide a picture of how police priorities have changed in the wake of layoffs.
The statistics include arrests and summonses by offense category and are compiled monthly. The AP reviewed data from January 2009 through September in order to capture trends before and after police layoffs.
In four of the New Jersey cities with deep cuts, the story has been similar. There have been fewer arrests per month, post-layoffs, for most types of offenses, but the biggest decreases are for the least serious crimes. In Trenton, where the layoffs came in mid-September, it's too early to tell, though arrests in every kind of case declined sharply in September in the capital city.
"In general, the less-serious stuff is treated with more discretion," said Mike Maxfield, a criminal justice professor at New York City's John Jay College. "You can't write off a bank robbery, you can't ignore a homicide."
Officials in Newark, Trenton, Camden and Paterson have either declined to be interviewed about the drop in arrests or not responded to requests. In general, officials in cities where officers have been laid off have taken the position that they would prioritize the most important crimes and find ways to do more with fewer officers.
The dramatic declines in monthly arrests seem to be unique to the cities with deep layoffs. Total statewide monthly arrest figures — including the five cities — have been stable in the period reviewed by the AP. And in Jersey City, the state's largest city without layoffs, fluctuations in arrests have been far milder than in the cities where police have been laid off.
Newark has the easiest story to tell by the numbers. In New Jersey's biggest city, the layoffs came all at once, with about 150 officers, or 15 percent of the force, let go in November 2010. The city received a federal grant in September to hire back 25 of them, but they have not returned to the force yet.
From January 2009 to November 2010, the city had an average of 1,421 arrests a month for indictable offenses — the most serious crimes, ranging from drug dealing to murders. From December 2010 to September 2011, there were 1,296 per month, a decrease of 9 percent.
Arrests for lesser offenses dropped more sharply after the November 2010 layoffs — 16 percent for disorderly persons and 49 percent for "other" offenses, a category that includes fish and wildlife violations and local laws such as curfew and noise ordinance violations. Parking summonses — handed out mainly by the city's parking authority, which is separate from the police department — dropped 12 percent. In an oddity, moving traffic violations were up by nearly 4 percent.
In Paterson, monthly arrests for indictable offenses were down 13 percent after the April 2011 layoffs, 22 percent for disorderly persons charges and 40 percent for other minor offenses.
And in Camden, monthly arrests and summonses were down in every category after the layoffs there in January: 21 percent for indictable crimes, 25 percent for disorderly persons and 50 percent for ordinance and other violations. Unlike in Newark, moving traffic violations also fell by more than 50 percent.
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