Most Pennsylvania police units too small to operate efficiently

     image courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons

    image courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons

     Consolidation or regionalization efforts often are complicated or prevented by the way some state laws are written, according to a recent report. 

    About three-quarters of Pennsylvania’s 986 local police departments have fewer than 10 members, according to a recent study by the state Legislative Budget & Finance Committee.

    That’s the bare minimum experts say is needed to run a department effectively. Combining forces could help, in some cases.

    The Commonwealth’s 34 regional police departments cite the advantage of long-term savings, according to the report.  But researchers also found that for the short-term the costs rise.

    And concerns about that – how much, how long, etc. – often complicate or prevent regionalization. So do legal ambiguities regarding the regionalization process, particularly regarding pensions, the report says.

    Those two issues were among the most frequently cited by police in regional and local departments surveyed by the report’s authors during the past year.

    But the very biggest obstacle was the prospect of losing control, according to Patricia Berger, chief counsel for the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, who led the study. 

    “We had municipalities tell us that they couldn’t even get the municipality next to them to come to the table to discuss it. So, obviously, if you’re not even discussing it, at that point, you don’t know what the costs are going to be, you don’t know what the impact is going to be. But you do know that if you go to a regional department, you’re no longer going to be the only individual making the decision related to your police services,” says Berger.

    The study found other downsides to consolidation include residents having less contact with officers and increased competition among officers for higher-ranking positions.

    Aside from efficiencies, benefits include diluted liability, and improved technology and officers’ training and career opportunities.

    Much of that is out of state officials’ control. But Berber says they can help by changing existing state laws, particularly those governing pensions.

    Pennsylvania lawmakers commissioned the study in 2013. It’s part of a wider effort to help struggling local governments  avoid financial and operational problems through sharing services, reforming the municipal pension system and arbitration process, and improving financial practices.

    Report recommendations for the General Assembly:

    1. Revise existing pension laws.

    How?

    That’s up to the pension experts, Berger says.

    But she and her team did identify a couple laws to target:

    Act 205 provides for state aid for local pensions, but doesn’t allow for direct transfer to regionalized departments.Act 600 pertains to local police pension plans established after 1996. It clashes with police pension stipulations in the Third-Class City Code, preventing those cities from participating in consolidation. That’s noteworthy because the largest of them (York, for example) struggle – several (Shamokin, Altoona, Harrisburg) so badly that they’ve landed in the state’s Act 47 program.

    2. Increase financial incentives to regionalize.

    3. Write laws for regional police departments.

    DCED has guidelines for the process, but there aren’t state laws specific to regional police departments.

    Researchers say they’re needed to provide legal definitions, formally transfer responsibility for individual departments to the regional one, provide for the new combined department to receive state aid directly, specify a time commitment for participating communities, and require provisions for dissolving the regional department.

    Report recommendations for the DCED:

    1. Develop a more detailed cost reporting form.Berger says municipalities often low-ball cost estimates because they leave out some indirect expenses like facilities maintenance. 

    “More municipalities, if they knew what their true cost were, they might be willing to talk more about regionalizing,” she says.

    DCED found that departments’ initial cost estimates were off by as much as 40 percent, Berks says.

    2. Check out the forthcoming Dauphin County police regionalization study to inform legislative recommendations.DCED is paying $73,000 of the study’s $95,000 total estimated costs, according to county spokeswoman Amy Richards.

    Washington, DC-based Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) is doing the study, and expects to be finished sometime next year, Richards says.

    That company did the report informing police force consolidation in Berks County.

    3. Develop best practices to guide the regionalization process.

     

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