Police Consolidation: The End of Local Law Enforcement? Will Consolidation of Local Police Departments and Sheriffs' Offices Mean Taking Control Away from Local Citizens, Chiefs of Police, and Sheriffs?
J. D., Joe Wolverton, II, The New American
From Bergen, New Jersey, to St. Louis, Missouri, to Salt Lake City, Utah, the merging of law enforcement moves along, applauded by a coterie of city leaders and well-meaning citizens.
Nationwide, towns and cities are jumping on the consolidation bandwagon. According to the latest data, there are about 18,000 state and local law-enforcement agencies in the United States. Of those, more than 150 have undergone some level of consolidation.
Those pushing for the consolidation of police forces into regional or metropolitan agencies typically cite budget shortfalls as the best reason for closing down local forces and combining resources to form a consolidated force.
Typically, the austerity argument goes like this: If Town A spends $1 million on police services, Town B spends $1 million, and Town C spends $2 million, wouldn't it make more sense to streamline those services by creating a combined force that is smaller and costs less?
Sounds good, but the hypothetical doesn't live up to the hype. Take the story of Louisville, Kentucky, for example. Beginning with a referendum in 2000, city administrators began singing the cost-saving serenade, and on January 6, 2003 city police merged with the unincorporated areas of Jefferson County. After reassigning the responsibilities and reassessing needs, the number of patrol divisions was reduced from 10 to eight, and the number of beats fell from 51 to 44. Additionally, key management positions in the new department were taken from officers and given to newly hired civilian employees.
Those numbers would seem to prove the fulfillment of the money-saving promises made by the consolidation cheerleaders. Sadly, the ledger tells a different story.
According to Steve Conrad, current chief of the Glendale, Arizona, police and former assistant chief of police in Louisville, the savings they were promised never materialized. At a conference on police consolidation held in 2011 at Michigan State University, Conrad recalled that although the metro mayor touted "the synergy of merger: ten people here, ten people there, they could work more efficiently together," the department actually ended up hiring "15 or 20 here, and 15 or 20 there."
In fact, the merger was a budgetary disaster. Conrad estimated that consolidation cost about $85 million. New communication equipment cost nearly $70 million and allowances for new healthcare plans and other benefits ended up costing another $10 million. Hardly a windfall.
The consolidation math doesn't add up, but the harsh economic realities don't appear until years after the consolidation is bought and paid for--literally.
That isn't to say every consolidation will be as big a boondoggle as Louisville. Certainly there will be cases when the consolidation saved money in the long run, but these cases will be few and far between. Everything will cost more than promised, but local governments will have already surrendered their control over the costs of contracts made for the outfitting of a force.
Another fiscal fact is that upfront costs are usually prohibitive. It doesn't take a CPA to realize that for the one-time cost of new branding, new uniforms, new vehicles, new training manuals, etc., a town could pay for its own police force for years.
Often, in support of their plans for consolidation, politicians will point out that smalltown budgets prevent them from fully staffing a police department and from providing citizens with the services of specialty units like SWAT or K-9.
This might be true. A more relevant question needs to be asked in response, however: How many of the crimes committed within the jurisdiction of a local police force require the participation of one of those specialized units? Very few.
Furthermore, if such a crime is committed, what prevents the local police chief from calling his colleague from a larger nearby jurisdiction and asking for the assistance of this bigger town's SWAT team? …