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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Camden's Fill-In Chief Wins And Wows Fans; Edwin Figueroa: Police Leader With An Asterisk

By Troy Graham

July 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved. 

CAMDEN -- Although he has headed the Camden Police Department for almost five months, interim Chief Edwin Figueroa still wears a badge that identifies him as the "Deputy Chief."

During a recent interview, he sat next to a huge organizational chart that listed his former boss, Chief Robert Allenbach, under a category for suspended personnel.

Figueroa, as reserved and reticent as his predecessor was colorful and bombastic, refuses to compare his style with Allenbach's, eschewing the controversy of comparisons. But Figueroa's bosses - and there are many - seem much more pleased with the new man's leadership.

"We have an excellent working relationship," Camden County Prosecutor Vincent P. Sarubbi said. "We at the Prosecutor's Office are satisfied that Chief Figueroa is moving forward with implementing... reforms in the department."

About two weeks after city officials suspended Allenbach and named Figueroa as his successor in March, the Camden County Prosecutor's Office took control of the department, which already was under state oversight.

Those moves thrust Figueroa to the head of an agency in transition and put him in the unusual position of reporting to various city, county and state authorities while carrying an impermanent-sounding title.

The city has yet to resolve Allenbach's status, and it was unclear whether Figueroa would be given the chief's job should Allenbach fall from the picture.

But many officials have echoed Sarubbi's sentiments, and Mayor Gwendolyn Faison praised Figueroa's ascension in March by saying, "I'm so pleased and happy that finally, finally, we have the right people in place."

If he is named the permanent chief, it will be the culmination of a long career in law enforcement that began when, at age 17, he graduated from Camden's Woodrow Wilson High School in 1966. (He wrote in his yearbook that he would become an FBI agent.)

Figueroa wanted to join the Army or the Marines, but because of his age, his parents had to sign off on it. As the Vietnam War intensified, they balked. Figueroa worked out a compromise and joined the Air Force, instead. He spent a year guarding an air base that was hit four times during the 1968 Tet offensive.

The native of Puerto Rico, whose parents immigrated when he was 3, returned to Camden after the war and joined the Police Department in 1973.

Now a 30-year veteran of the force, Figueroa, 55, said recently that he was not looking to retire, but that he wouldn't lobby in the media to become the city's first Hispanic chief, either.

"I would like that, but it's not an obsession. Whatever is best for the department... ," he said.

For now, Figueroa - affectionately known as "Figs" - has busied himself with reorganizing the department and making the reforms urged by the state.

A plan, awaiting approval in Trenton, has been devised to put more officers on the street through the enlistment of recruits and hiring of civilians to do the clerical work that some officers are doing now. The department also is looking for a building large enough to handle a centralized operation, eliminating district precincts.

Under Figueroa's watch, the department also has instituted new training and standards for its beleaguered dispatch center and begun to whittle down a huge backlog of internal-affairs cases - two problems singled out in a scathing report written by Sarubbi that led to Allenbach's suspension.

These changes have been undertaken in close consultation with Sarubbi's office and Anthony R. Saponare, the county's chief of investigations, who was named as a liaison between the department and the Prosecutor's Office.

"I think it's a good, healthy relationship," Figueroa said. "We're able to discuss issues on a friendly basis, not an adversarial one."

Figueroa worked under Saponare when Saponare was a deputy chief in the city department. The two now meet regularly, three or four days a week.

"I had confidence in Ed," Saponare said. "The alternative was for me to come in here and run everything, micromanage. That's not my style, but if Ed wasn't here, that's what we'd have to do."

John Williamson, the vice president of Lodge 1 of the Fraternal Order of Police, said Figueroa's style and personality had boosted morale among the rank and file. He pointed to the recent death of one officer's mother, when Figueroa came immediately to the hospital to offer support and condolences.

The gesture was typical of Figueroa's commitment to relying on his officers and supporting them through thick and thin.

"You're only as good as the people you work with," Figueroa said. "And fairness. Fairness always has to be in the back of your mind."

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