Regionalizing resources

Are mega law enforcement agencies the answer to the financial crunch hitting departments nationwide? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seems to think so.

According to news reports, Christie met with mayors of three of the Garden State’s biggest cities to suggest they consider regionalizing law enforcement resources. It’s not the first occasion where officials have looked at consolidating police services — it’s been done before. At a time when local governments are straining to find ways to supplement dwindling budgets, many are also searching for new methods whereby they can cut expenses.

Here are a few examples I found where officials were addressing the premise of consolidated law enforcement services at press time:

A move to commission a study aimed at the feasibility of merging the Gainesville, Fla., Police Department with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office was quashed in its infancy after public objections.

In the Borough of Keyport, N.J., officials revisited a 1992 report on police consolidation. The feasibility study looked at combining police services presently located in two boroughs into one.

Oakland County, Mich., has contracted with the city of Pontiac to deliver police services. Michigan state officials have indicated an interest in exploring the consolidation of law enforcement services throughout the state.

Some North Carolina officials are pushing for legislation that will allow major city police departments to contract with smaller municipalities to provide police services.

Three Utah departments are determining whether merging their operations will save their constituents money.

Oakdale, Calif., is in talks with the nearby city of Riverbank to provide police services or possibly merge their operations.

The idea of combining services isn’t new: In 1980, the Marin County, Calif., cities of Larkspur and Corte Madera combined forces — literally. Officers working for the Twin Cities PD share a jurisdiction that stretches from one city limit to the other. After 30 years, officials say the arrangement still works well.

In Schenectady, Columbia University’s Dr. William Elmicke studied combining some tasks that are currently independent functions of seven local departments. The real goal, say supporters of police consolidation, is to save money; but that doesn’t mean criminal justice professionals like the idea. Police have always been an independent bunch and departmental pride runs deep — sometimes with good reason.

I remember an operation in which I was involved many years ago. Because of the volume of crimes present in the operation we were investigating and their reach across several states, we brought in one federal agency. That in turn led to a second federal agency, then a third. We were also compelled to bring another local jurisdiction into the picture.

Two of the federal agencies were at one another’s throats over who would do what in connection with the case. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my chief had enough evidence to ask the courts to order a large piece of property forfeited to the city. Imagine our surprise when we found that the other local agency — which only played a tangential role in the case — had also asked for the forfeiture.

Sometimes law enforcement gets an “F” in playing well with others. Agency pride, ways of doing things and reputation all influence how a community views its law enforcement. I can truthfully say that if my department had been absorbed by the other one, the product would not have been an improvement, but a step down.

I’m not saying that combining or centralizing some tasks to save money isn’t a good thing, especially if it allows departments to keep boots on the ground. But to the officials rushing to consolidate these departments, quality should be a big part of the consideration.