By Jeremy Wilson, Alexander Weiss, and Clifford Grammich
The Great Recession and its aftermath had a huge impact on local policing, with agencies furloughing, laying off, or defunding positions. Local governments still struggle with resource and staffing issues. Given the fact that public-safety costs consume significant portions of the general-fund budget for local governments, agencies have sought ways to consolidate, merge, or share police services.
To explore these issues and how agencies are responding to them, researchers working with the program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services at Michigan State University’s (MSU) School of Criminal Justice undertook a study with a twofold approach with support from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
First, in February 2013, a focus group of 60 law enforcement personnel discussed what issues their agencies had confronted or would confront should they 1) merge into a regional organization and reduce its combined staffing; 2) participate in regionally shared services; 3) determine what services to provide and how much to charge for them when contracting; and 4) adopt a public-safety model integrating police, fire, and emergency medical services.
Second, to gather insights from local governments, the researchers conducted four case studies to gather details on actual experiences with various forms of consolidation. These case studies included interviews of line staff, executives, and local officials, as well as reviews of data and supporting materials provided by local officials.
Issues encountered in the case studies did not exactly match those discussed in the focus groups, but they provide insight on the varying importance of key issues. The case studies included:
- Fraser/Winter Park, Colorado, Police Department: A merged department that provided law-enforcement services to two towns after cancellation of a sheriff’s contract in 2004.
- Buffalo Valley, Pennsylvania, Regional Police Department: Department formed as the result of a merger between the police departments of Lewisburg Borough and East Buffalo Township in 2012.
- Rockford, Michigan, Department of Public Safety: Combined police and fire departments in 2012.
- San Mateo County, California, Sheriff’s Office: Currently provides contract law-enforcement services to more than a half-dozen jurisdictions.
While the focus-group scenarios varied greatly, one common theme was the need for implicit trust or understanding among those involved. Discussion of the merger issue noted the need for merging agencies to have a similar policing philosophy, while those discussing the sharing of services regionally noted how pre-established relationships pave the way for more formal ones.
Similarly, those who contracted with another community would avoid doing anything that might damage their relationship with those already providing such contract services. Many also said they would avoid entering situations where jurisdictions are seeking contracts to use as leverage against unions.
Those in public-safety agencies emphasized the need to build trust among firefighters who might be merging with them. At the same time, participants also recognized the need for more tangible resources than trust in these scenarios.
Participants in merging communities noted the need for strong guidance from top management or political leaders to accomplish the merger. In particular, they noted the need for mayors or managers to understand the costs involved in a merger, including which jurisdiction would pay for what, the need for leaders to gain acceptance of the merger before executing it, and the need for leaders to present a strong and united front for the merger through its completion.
Those in regional service agreements recognized that some inequities can result in such arrangements that could potentially pose obstacles to the agreement. Larger jurisdictions may, for example, contribute more resources than smaller ones. Participants explained, however, that when this occurs the larger jurisdiction generally continues to support them because the larger jurisdiction will achieve greater success through the partnership than on its own.
Those in contractual agreements would resist providing fewer services than they believed were needed—and forsake the contracting opportunity if necessary. That is, contracting agencies would refuse contracts if communities would not agree to fund the staffing levels and services the agency thought needed.
Those in public-safety models were not always convinced fire agencies were as modern as police agencies in management, which in turn affects the willingness of police leaders to accept such arrangements.
Just as trust or understanding appeared to be common themes in the focus-group considerations of varying scenarios, understandings of culture also appear to be prominent in the case studies.
The Fraser and Winter Park merger occurred between two cities whose origins were similar and whose new employees were familiar with the area and the differing issues each community faced.
The Buffalo Valley communities were also similar in size and other characteristics and chose the former chiefs of the separate departments as their chief and assistant chief. The Rockford public-safety consolidation ensured understanding of, and acceptance by, the community through the retention of the fire chief as fire marshal.
The San Mateo sheriff sought to boost understanding of contract communities by giving charge of contracting arrangements to an undersheriff who was also a former police chief in the area.
Each community also had its challenges in adopting new policies. The Fraser/Winter Park regionalization had to overcome ill will toward the sheriff’s office that had resulted in the termination of the communities’ contractual relationship.
The Buffalo Valley department had fewer participants than it might otherwise have achieved because some potential participants did not want to give up state-police service that Pennsylvania communities retain when no other is provided.
Rockford public-service employees who also served as paid on-call firefighters before the merger of the police and fire agencies were reluctant to give up that work. The San Mateo contracting appears to have had fewer challenges, but it was precipitated in some cases by dire municipal finances, perhaps making merger more of a necessity than it was elsewhere.
These common themes were also evident in both the focus-group discussion and case studies:
1. It is important to emphasize how a proposed change will affect the quality of service delivery. Communities often contemplate sharing service delivery to reduce cost. Reducing costs, however, will normally be a necessary, but not sufficient, measure of success. Agency leaders must also demonstrate to residents that any proposed change will result in service delivery that is at least as good if not better than the status quo.
2. Cost savings may be elusive, especially in the early years. Agencies that enter mergers or other cooperative agreements often do so because they have already tried several other cost-cutting initiatives, leaving few savings to be realized by new initiatives.
3.Any plan to share services must include extensive discussions with employees, who must be treated equitably. In the private sector, mergers and acquisitions often result in loss of jobs. While these actions are certainly difficult, most employees understand that this is part of the business cycle.
In the public sector and particularly among public-safety employees, there is a much stronger expectation of job security. Mergers and consolidations among police agencies can also raise questions in such areas as seniority, which is key in assignments, shift selection, and benefit time off (e.g., for vacations and holidays).
4. Details are important. It is relatively easy to create a new model for providing service. When these plans emerge, however, communities are often inundated with public outcry, lawsuits, or labor challenges.
Focus-group participants emphasized the need for open communication. In the case-study communities we examined, agency leaders ensured that they had answers to questions that were sure to emerge.
5. Leadership is fundamental to these efforts. Focus-group participants noted the need for strong leadership from top government officials. In every case-study community that we researched, we also found an individual or group of individuals that devoted significant time, energy, and, in some cases, political capital, to ensuring a successful implementation of the new organization scheme.