A tale of two mergers

      Just two weeks after the town voted 70–30 to dissolve the Town of Clay (New York) Police Department in July of 2008, the small department with its 17 officers and 54-square foot facility was no more. Even though Clay's population was 60,000 and growing, its law enforcement counterpart was not keeping pace. But the department was looking to grow; and the town supervisor was looking to save money while providing citizens the same level of service. In October of 2009 the Town of Clay PD was absorbed into the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department (OCSD), and few have looked back since.

   Sheriff Kevin Walsh of OCSD recalls the tentative first steps of the transition, saying "It was difficult to get all the information that we needed up-front, simply because we didn't want this to become a public battle before anybody was really sure we could do this and save money … and still provide that same level of service."

   When they were finally ready to take the news public, Walsh and others in the department were able to say they could provide the same level of service guaranteed, there would always be two patrols on — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year — that would not leave the township other than for the same reasons that its police force would leave the township now; the response time would be comparable to or better than residents are used to from the town agency, and the department could save a little bit over $1 million a year.

Administrative hurdles

   The merger between Clay PD and Onondaga County mirrors that of the Indianapolis Metro Police department in 2006 when the Marion County Sheriff's Department was absorbed into the Indianapolis Police. Similar to that of the New York agencies, the idea in Indianapolis was to reduce duplicated efforts and services, and to use the best aspects of each agency's practices.

   Indianapolis Metro Commander Paul Ciesielski recalls that the biggest challenges in this process, in his mind, pertained to administrative practices and personnel. Records were a challenge because both the Marion deputies and Indianapolis police operated under two sets of policy that were similar yet different. Personnel and hiring, and training practices were different as well. "We tried to merge the best of both departments into one policy," says Ciesielski. He goes on to say that the task of managing these things improved within a year.

   Walsh can relate, "Should we do this again, and we are in talks with a couple of agencies, we would probably allow for a couple months lead time so we can get the details taken care of before it actually happens." For example, the Town of Clay had several hundred warrants in its warrant file made out to "Officers of the Town of Clay." Each warrant had to be reassigned and the wording changed. Each warrant also had to be deemed still timely and active, which meant going back to individual judges to find out why these warrants hadn't been executed; some of them were a couple years old and were beyond the statute of limitations.

   Fortunately neither department had to deal with retooling its communication procedures. Onondaga County, N.Y., has a separate E-911 communication center that handles communication for sheriffs, city police, towns and villages, state police, fire department and EMS service. All law enforcement in Marion County, Ind., also used the same network, so there was absolutely no change. (This was done for cost-saving reasons years prior to the merger.)

Streamlining equipment

   Another matter of discussion for law enforcement agencies looking to join is what becomes of equipment and training tools already in place. The goal is usually to save money and streamline efforts. But all parties must be cognizant when separating the fat from the meat, as there are often hidden ways to save.

   "It costs us about $5,800 to equip an officer from the ground-up: uniform, leather gear, gun, radio, handcuffs, night stick, etc," says Walsh. "Bringing 13 people into the department who were going to be contracted to the Clay area would have cost around $75,000, but we gave them credit for anything they brought over with them that was compatible to what we use now." Officers carried the same Glock .45, the radios were the same and the leather gear was compatible.

   OCSD also took seven of Clay's cars as a trade-off against the cost of buying new vehicles. They plan to phase out the cars and also build a cost into the contract for the expense of painting the vehicles or doing any modifications to make the fleets look similar. Timing the transition just right allowed Clay PD to further retain some end-of-year budgetary savings, as merging in July of 2008 allowed Clay to save for the end of the last part of its 2008 budget.

   Walsh adds that a great deal of property and evidence needed to be checked-up on and accounted for. "There's a lot of those kind of details to clean up," he says. "What we didn't want [the Town of Clay officers] were able to take to auction."

   Some items, purchased with federal or state grants, had to go back to the granting agency so they could decide per policy whether the item should stay with the town or go with the agency at no charge. Says Walsh, "There were a couple of grants that had not yet been utilized that had to go back and get transferred from the Town of Clay Police Department to the sheriff's office, and that took a lot of work on the part of our grants people."

From cops to deputies

   Fine-tuning the process and getting the figures right takes time. After that, agencies have to decide how manpower will be best utilized while ideally making few, if any, cuts. While OCSD needed 13 employees on staff, the Town of Clay police department had 16 viable employees. Luckily due to retirement and additional vacancies at the sheriff's office, everybody ended up with a job.

   Still, in looking at the new mix of manpower, it was determined supervisors outnumbered workers. The original thought was all Clay officers would come over as deputies, but New York State civil service laws required high-ranking personnel be promoted to lieutenant, etc., as soon as a position opened, regardless of sheriff office's personnel who might be on the waiting list.

   "Of course that would not sit very well with my units," says Walsh. At the time he believed this could be a major stumbling block. But the offices worked together and determined the merger was really more a contract in which the town is contracting to have these units full-time. As per the contract, the town agreed to pay the lieutenant and sergeant salary, as well as the officers' salary to fill those 13 positions. Onondaga in fact gained two additional lieutenants and three sergeants under the agreement, and salaries remained intact.

   After coming aboard it was decided that all transfers, regardless of rank, must undergo OCSD field training in order to have the same capability and knowledge of Onondaga operations and procedures as others on the force. Walsh confirms this practice has "paid good benefits," as the two lieutenants and sergeant have done an excellent job so far.

   Even more important than training, though, was making sure officers who have transferred feel welcomed into the new culture, and understand how their new role is defined.

   Ciesielski recalls that on the first official day of the merge, he had supervisors working for him that he'd never met before. Sure, they were from two different law enforcement agencies in the same county, but he maintains it took a while for working officers to get to know and trust each other. "It's almost like working with rookies," says Ciesielski.

   To help things along, he says everybody made a conscious effort to meet one another. Equally important was that all officers were privy to information coming down from the merge, such as policy changes. Boiled down, good communication was, and still is, crucial.

   "We told [the transferred officers] there were going to be a lot of bugs, and there were going to be people complaining and upset about this policy or that personal issue or whatever," says Ciesielski. "But the important thing is to stay focused and know what your job is — taking runs, helping people, locking up bad guys, trying to reduce violent crime — and the rest will take care of itself."

Building better service

   Usually when merging police departments is up for consideration, communities are split — with good reason. It's often difficult for town and city managers to come up with a realistic cost-savings projection (if that's the ultimate goal), and it's even more difficult for law enforcement officials to foresee and address every hiccup in initial planning stages. That's why it's crucial for civil service commissioners, personnel, town residents, local government officials and lawyers on both sides of the fence be present and involved in the planning.

   Walsh says, "There are always going to be some things that hadn't been thought of. We had the accountants do some real tight pencil work so there were no hidden costs."

   One reason why so many people are against consolidation is because they think the new force will be stretched and unavailable, while often the opposite is true.

   "People like the visual signs of law enforcement in their neighborhood," says Walsh. "That's not just patrol cars in the area, but also things like the police station itself." In the Town of Clay/Onondaga County merge, the town agreed the new agency could have the former Town of Clay PD building for $1 a year, while the town maintained the heat and lights, simply because they liked the idea of having cars come in and out of the building.

   Things started to improve in the second year of the Marion County/Indianapolis PD merger, and Ciesielski says police visibility is at an all-time high. A lot of the former sheriff's deputies that were working for certain areas and were stretched thin are still working for that area in the new PD, but this time with better coverage and readily available backup. Residents in these outlying areas in particular have seen the increase in police presence, and city residents still enjoy the former police presence they were used to.

   Ciesielski agrees the most important thing is that citizens don't suffer a loss of service. Three years later, enough time has lapsed to deem the Indianapolis Metro move a success.

   "Originally, there were a lot of hurt feelings and nostalgia … of doing away with the department you were hired on; but now you don't even hear people talk about it that much," says Ciesielski.

   "The city police had just celebrated its 150th anniversary and so I think the idea was all that history and tradition is gone. Well, it's not really gone. It's always your history; the uniform's just a little different. Now we'll make our own histories and traditions."

   Could this be the solution you've been looking for?

Four rules for a smooth transition

   Merging law enforcement departments can be similar to joining households. It's imperative that all parties do their research and consider the impact on the community as a whole. The most important thing is that service remains strong.

  1. Find out if it's what the people really want
    Under New York State law, if a village police department is going to be dissolved or eliminated, a mandatory referendum is needed. If a town police department is going to be absorbed by another agency, a permissive resolution can be had and gone to public vote. Sheriff Kevin Walsh of the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department (N.Y.) recommends making it a volunteer referendum to find out whether it's what the public really wants. Though some are strongly for it and other strongly against, only a small portion of the population will come to public meetings and express their opinion.
  2. Present both sides of the argument
    "We made sure that at each public presentation, each presenter had a chance to equal time. That gave the public both sides of the story, and it wasn't an opportunity to say they're not telling you the real facts. It also gives us the opportunity to refute misinformation," says Walsh.
  3. Give yourself enough lead time
    "The more lead time, the better," says Walsh. Things like researching and re-working records and warrants can take a lot of time and resources, not to mention consolidating property and evidence, if necessary. "The police part is easy … the devil's in the details."
  4. Stay focused on your job
    Leave administrative and communications tasks for those better-suited to the job. Part of command staff's job is to make sure you're well-equipped to serve any new areas in your jurisdiction. "Get people in the right places, get response times to come down and get people familiar with the area and new districts," says Indianapolis Metro Commander Paul Ciesielski. "It's a work in progress."