Jenkintown considers dissolving its police force

Jenkintown spends more than half its annual budget on policing. Officials believe contracting out the services with neighbors Abington and Cheltenham makes sense.

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A Jenkintown police car. (Jenkintown Police Department)

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The Borough of Jenkintown is considering dissolving its police force — and instead leaning on neighbors such as Abington or Cheltenham for those services.

“The growth in the cost of policing is outpacing the growth in the rest of the borough to try to grow with it,” said Mayor Gabriel Lerman. “We realize that that is not sustainable and something has to change.”

The half-square-mile borough’s law enforcement employs roughly a dozen staff members, including 10 full-time patrol officers, a part-time officer and its chief.

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Jenkintown plans to spend a little more than $5 million in 2024. Right now, its residents have the sixth highest municipal taxes and the second highest school taxes in the county, officials said. The municipality of 4,000 residents will dedicate more than 50% of its entire budget to policing.

Lerman said the borough isn’t risking shutting off lights, however, as stewards of taxpayers, officials should look toward improving spending.

“Providing an independent police force is not as efficient nor can it even scale to provide all of the services that neighboring police departments can because they are larger,” Lerman said.

Council President Jay Conners said the question is should officials continue to “tax the hell” out of residents. He believes the answer is no.

“We honestly believe that we would be getting more services and better services because neighboring police departments have a lot more to offer than what we currently have.” Conners said.

Borough Council Vice President Christian Soltysiak, who works within the Public Safety Committee, attributes this consideration to an influx of new blood in borough government.

“Any time you have a fresh set of eyes looking at things it helps to kind of spark new conversations and it’s always kind of been in the back of our mind every year,” Soltysiak said.

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From obvious expenses such as salaries and pensions to more unexpected costs such as vehicle repairs and legal fees, Soltysiak said the expenses add up and residents only catch a glimpse when paying their tax bill.

“We definitely need to encourage the sharing of more information about the cost of our police force and how that looks in our budget,” she said.

Jenkintown could rely on Abington, Cheltenham or state police services

Disbanding a police force and opting to share with a neighboring town is not a new concept.

Jenkintown Police Chief Tom Scott said Hatfield Borough has been contracting with Hatfield Township’s police for more than 20 years.

Newtown Township covers Wrightstown Township’s police services in Bucks County. Some municipalities utilize the state police.

“When you contract police services you are getting the full capability of that police department that you’re contracting with,” Scott said. “So you’re getting a full patrol division. You’re getting a detective division. You’re getting a community policing division. You’re getting a traffic safety unit, if they have that.”

Scott said the borough is “lucky” to call Abington neighbors. The township has the second largest police department in the county. He said it’s also possible that Cheltenham can be a partner. However, it has to be a mutual agreement.

In 2024, Scott said smaller borough’s are ill-equipped to perform “21st Century” policing and all of its tenets. From the training to the commitments, it costs time and resources on a profession that is already struggling to find and retain quality candidates, he said.

“It’s not an easy project. It’s a struggle for all of us,” Scott said. “You could ask any of the police in Montgomery County how much it’s been a difficult task to fill positions that are emptying, there’s people who are retiring and people are leaving the industry because of whatever facet that is driven them away and we have to be able to come up with new solutions to that.”

As officials mull over the decision, Scott said they are also considering the human element: the officers.

“They’re absolutely worried about it. I mean it is a major issue. It’s a life-changing thing that would occur,” Scott said.

Scott said his officer with the least amount of time spent working for the department has still put in more than eight years of work. Others have been there as long as 20 years.

“We’re gonna make sure that we take care of our employees every which way we can,” Scott said. “We’re not going to just leave them out, hanging dry and say ‘you’re done and you’re laid off and we’re not doing anything to help you.’ We wouldn’t do that. We’re not that type of organization. So if this decision was ever made, there would be every effort to help those police find another job.”

How did the idea of dissolving the police department begin — and where it goes from here?

The Glenside Local first reported Friday about officials hiring Bellevue Communications in July 2023 to communicate the borough’s plans about policing to its residents.

The relationship between the two parties ended with no action. The conversation never evolved to include another municipality.

At that moment, the borough and the police were engaged in contract negotiations. Conners, the council president, said it wasn’t the right time to field the idea with the public. He said the time is now to have this discussion.

“This conversation will play out in committee meetings. It’ll play out in borough council meetings, and it will play out in separate community meetings,” Conners said.

Conners understands the shock and concern residents might feel when they learn about the issue.

“They’re upset, but Jenkintown is made up of very reasonable rational intelligent residents and I think when we put this out to them like ‘hey, this is what you’re going to get,” Conners said. “This is the price you’re gonna get it at compared to what you have at this price,’ Jenkintown will consider it. I think they’ll be in favor of it. And so I think we all need to be very open-minded here.”

During the discussion process with Bellevue, Conners said there was talk about holding larger community meetings at one of the district schools

Without a giant business district to rake in additional tax revenue, Soltysiak, the council member, said it will be important to lean in and hear what community members have in mind.

“I hope that we can keep everyone’s attention for a little bit longer and we can really talk about this as a community and we can bring everyone together,” Soltysiak said.

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