- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 3, 2015

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) - As President Barack Obama discussed criminal justice system reforms in Newark, Gov. Chris Christie set up shop 80 miles south in Camden, touting his crime reductions.

The trip to Camden on Monday was one of many visits to the city for Christie, a Republican presidential contender. He was highlighting his work there, including turning over control of the city’s police force to a county-run force no longer bound by union contracts. He said on Monday the trip was his 28th.

There’s much less said about his work in Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, which has been plagued by unrelenting crime and a struggle to pay for police officers after having to cut more than 10 percent of the force after Christie-backed state budget cuts in 2011.

Christie said that he’s offered the same county-run model to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, including offering the same level of financial support.

“They have yet to accept the offer. But the offer is open,” Christie told The Associated Press. “And if they want to do it, we’re happy to do it. But it has to be done the way it was done here. Whole hog. All in. And if they willing to do that, let me tell you, we could put that together in a matter of weeks if they wanted.”

“The only reason you wouldn’t do this model when I’m offering the financial incentives I’m offering is if you’re more afraid of the police union than you are of rising crime in your city,” said Christie, who was born in Newark before leaving for the suburbs as a young child. “I would hope that Mayor Baraka would consider doing it.”

In a statement issued Tuesday by his office, Baraka disputed the governor’s statements.

“Gov. Christie has never made any offer to me regarding our police department,” Baraka said. “We would gladly take any resources because we need them - but not in exchange for state control or regionalization of the police department.

Baraka said he was “extremely proud” of the city’s police department, saying Newark had a 40 percent reduction in crime earlier this year.

A DiVincenzo spokesperson did not return calls seeking comment.

James Stewart Jr., head of the union representing Newark’s officers, said that Christie’s goal since he came into office has been to “slash decades worth of negotiations with one pen stroke.”

“Using the county plan is just doing that with a different cover on it,” he said. “As far as the mayor and DiVincenzo, I think that they recognize that the Newark police department is doing an outstanding job with what we have on hand right now.”

Camden has long been among the most crime-ridden cities in the country and matters deteriorated in 2011 and 2012 after Christie cut state aid and the city reacted with deep cuts to its police force. In 2012, when police were hardly present, Camden reported a record 67 murders among its population of about 77,000.

Then in 2013, the city disbanded its police force, which was replaced by a county-run department, a move supported by Christie as well as Democrats who run the city and county governments. Christie highlights the 53 percent drop in murders in the city since the new force was put into place.

In Newark, murders were down to 93 last year from 111 the year before. But the city dealt with a spike in violence this summer and the state sent in troopers to help. Christie noted that was only a temporary fix and that the city doesn’t want state police manning the city on a regular basis.

Beyond more state aid and state troopers on patrol, Baraka has called for the state to reaccredit a city police academy. A measure Baraka requested to require police to be Newark residents for a minimum of five years was approved by the Legislature in June, but Christie hasn’t acted on it.

Newark announced last month that 250 officers are set to join the force by next summer.

Obama appeared in Newark on Monday to promote programs that help former inmates after they’ve been released from prison. It was the second time the president has visited New Jersey to tout criminal justice reforms in recent months.

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Cornfield reported from Trenton.

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