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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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."