Photo: Mark W. Clark.
Maria Rivera remembers one of her toughest moments on the Camden (N.J.) Police Department. The single mom and an eight-year-veteran patrol officer knew how to deal with ugly things represented by ugly words: domestic abuse, fights, assaults, homicide. But nothing readied her for the words "laid off." In January, Camden laid off 168 on a force of 375 sworn officers.
"It has an impact when you love what you do. When you have to turn in your badge, that's painful," Rivera says, her voice cracking. "That's who you are. It's like a piece of you is taken away."
More and more officers nationwide are learning exactly how Rivera feels.
John Rimedio has had urine thrown on him. He's been spit on and attacked. He's received daily tirades unleashed by inmates of the Summit County, Ohio, jail, but it's all in his day's work as a deputy sheriff, and training helped him deal with such situations.
But nothing trained him for walking papers. The five-year deputy was laid off in December 2009, along with 30 others.
"We were doing paperwork outside the cell. Then this all-page came in. We knew it was coming. But the pages weren't simultaneous... I saw one of my buddies get his page before me," Rimedio says. "I read his face. I didn't even have to look at the jaw drop. Just a feeling in the whole room of being let down. Some tears. You could've heard a pin drop."
Rimedio, 28 and single, felt for everyone, right before Christmas. "We were a tight group working like a small family. If you had a bad day, this was your second family."
"It's so frightening," says Sgt. T.J. Assion of the Mahoning County (Ohio) Sheriff's Department and president of FOP Grand Lodge 141, who is dealing with 48 layoffs. "You stay up at night. You worry you can't make the mortgage. You might have to go out and get food stamps and a WIC card. You're worried about your wife and kid, wondering if you'll have your heat shut off or if you can make the car payments, or put gas in the car."
Assion should know. He remembers his layoff in 2005. At the time he was 27, married, with a newborn. "I had to take a job landscaping. I remember coming home from head to toe covered in mulch, and my wife said, 'T.J., I need money for baby formula.' And I said, 'I don't have the money right now. I don't get paid for three days.'"
The couple looked at each other, panicked about what to do. Finally, Assion asked his parents for the money. "It's a scary feeling … not being able to take care of your family."
Law enforcement layoff stories are plentiful in fiscally hard-hit regions like the Rust Belt, but no area of the country is immune. Sworn officers from Sun Belt cities like Tulsa and Phoenix have also grappled with budget cuts. Some cities manage budgets by cutting overtime, contracting out internal affairs investigations, cutting civilian positions, and gutting special units.
"We've gotten rid of community service officers, detectives, mounted patrol. And officers from the detective bureau went into field operations," says Dan Wagner, president of the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association. He says Toledo cut 75 since 2009 and lost 200 officers from attrition.
"We hated to lose them. We lost some good people," says Capt. Jim O'Bryant, spokesperson for the Toledo (Ohio) Police Department. "I don't think any of us ever thought police layoffs would happen."
The pain is evident in Camden, too. "It was never the mayor's desire to lay off any employee, but there was simply no money available to sustain the current staffing," says Robert Corrales of the Camden Mayor's office. "For several months, she informed all bargaining units of the fiscal constraints the city was faced with and tried to negotiate concessions … We were all very sympathetic to all employees who were laid off." Camden was faced with a $26.5 million budget deficit, he says.
Recently, reports have leaked that Camden is thinking of dismantling its entire police department. In the meantime, it has rehired 19 officers using COPS grants and another 50 through other means. But that's not making up for the loss of 160 officers earlier this year, which resulted in a 19-percent rise in violent crime.
Rising crime rates have become a rallying cry for some laid-off officers who are appealing directly to the public to help them regain their jobs. The Stockton, Calif., union resorted to billboards: "Welcome to the second most dangerous city in California. Stop laying off cops."
The truth is that very few citizens want police layoffs. But times are tough and cities and counties are facing shrinking budgets. So police are losing their jobs.
"We don't want to see anyone laid off, but because of the economy, it happens," says Josephine Santaniell, a public information officer for the Newark Police Department.
But while funds are scarce, is public safety threatened during this economic meltdown?