Firefighters began turning in their helmets and police officers their badges Tuesday as part of deep municipal layoffs destined to further erode the quality of life in Camden, already one of the nation's most impoverished and crime-ridden cities.
As many as 383 workers, representing one-fourth of the local government work force, are expected to lose their jobs, including about half the police force and one-third of the city's firefighters.
Laid-off firefighters walked eight blocks together from the police union hall to Fire Department headquarters, snaking past City Hall, then lined up their helmets in front of the building, picked them back up and started to turn them in along with their other gear.
"It's one of the worst days in the history of Camden," said Ken Chambers, the president of the firefighters union.
Eighty-three laid-off police officers put their work boots along the sidewalk near police headquarters to symbolize the lost jobs.
Mayor Dana Redd planned a noon news conference to talk about the layoffs in a city facing a huge budget deficit and declining state aid.
Chambers said residents should not expect to be safe as the number of fire companies is reduced. He said the union will continue to meet with city officials to try to reach a deal where some firefighters could be brought back.
Police officers had begun turning in their badges Monday as it became clear that no last-minute deal was going to save many jobs.
Located directly across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Camden is rampant with open drug-dealing, prostitution and related crimes. More than half of Camden's 80,000 residents, mostly black and Hispanic, live in poverty.
A local pastor says "the fear quotient has been raised," and a police union took out a full-page newspaper advertisement last week warning that Camden would become a "living hell" if layoffs were not averted.
The city was the nation's second-most dangerous based on 2009 data, according to CQ Press, which compiles such rankings. Camden ranked first the previous two years. In 2009, the city had 2,380 violent crimes per 100,000 residents — more than five times the national average, the FBI said.
The anti-crime volunteer group Guardian Angels also says it will patrol Camden, as it has Newark, where there were major police layoffs in November.
The Fire Department has already been relying on help from volunteer departments in neighboring towns. Interim Fire Chief David Yates, who retired Jan. 1, has warned that that layoffs will increase response times.