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To merge or not to merge

07/17/2014 02:49PM, Published by ACL, Categories: In Print, News


The 15 officers in the Kennett Square Borough Police Department work out of this Broad Street location.



By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer


They function as end points on an oddly shaped triangle of law enforcement that helps keep more than 25,000 residents of Kennett Township, Kennett Square Borough and New Garden Township safe, but that is where their similarities end. 

On one end, New Garden Township Police Chief Gerald Simpson oversees a staff of 11 full-time officers out of a temporary set of trailers on Gap-Newport Pike, while on the other, Police Chief Albert McCarthy and officer Lydell Nolt of the Kennett Township Police Department occupy a part of the township building. In the middle, Kennett Borough Police Chief Edward Zunino and his staff of 11 full-time officers and four part-time officers patrol the streets of Kennett Square and beyond, working out of a building just off of State Street. 

All three units are housed within a few miles of each other, and yet from an operational standpoint, the distance between them could be measured in light years. Now, a state agency is helping all three municipalities explore the concept of bringing the three police units together under one roof. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development (DCED), a state agency that provides opportunities for state businesses and communities, is in the beginning stages of working with the Kennett Square Borough, New Garden Township and Kennett Township to create a feasibility study on a regional police force that will merge all three units into one centralized law enforcement department. 

The idea began this May, when the townships and the borough submitted letters of intent to the DCED. Then the DCED sent back law enforcement surveys to all three police forces to gather financial data, public safety information, departmental personnel lists and to grasp the overall structure of each unit. Once the surveys are collected, DCED will ask the municipalities to sign an agreement that will open the door to a full feasibility study, to be conducted by a DCED peer consultant.

"It's a nine-page survey that provides a lot of data to us," said Ronald Stern, a local government policy specialist with the Governor's Center for Local Government Services, a DCED department. "I still require the peer consultant to double-check everything, so that when we give a budget for a new department, we're comparing apples to apples." 

The initiative to explore combining forces came from the municipalities themselves, not from the DCED, Stern said. He emphasized that his department's goal is merely to assist local governments.

"We don't encourage them to regionalize," he said. "We're here to help them, and it's up to them to decide whether we can help them or not."

Whether or not the three municipalities merge their police forces will be determined by the vote of the board of supervisors for Kennett and New Garden Townships, and by the Kennett Square Borough Council.

If these municipalities ultimately merge, they certainly won't be the first in Pennsylvania to do so. Although regional policing is in place in Las Vegas, Bergen and Camden counties in New Jersey, Suffolk and Nassau counties in New York and in other states, Pennsylvania is by far the leading state to adopt the regional policing concept. There are  more than 1,200 municipal police departments in the state, and of them, 35 are regional departments that represent 118 municipalities, most of them established in the last ten years. Among them are regional units in central Berks County, northern and central Bucks County, and three regional units in York County. 

The seeds of this movement date back to 1975, when Pennsylvania adopted Standard 6.4, which gives guidelines for police consolidation -- two years after the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended that all police departments with less than ten full-time sworn officers be consolidated with a neighboring unit.  

"Where appropriate to do so, police departments should consolidate for improved efficiency or effectiveness, but in no case should an individual department lose salary or status as a result of such consolidation," the standard reads.

Police departments in Dauphin County (Pa.) are considering the possibility of merging units, and have formed a 17-member committee. At a recent meeting, Stern referred to the standard's recommendation, calling it "astounding" that in Pennsylvania, 83 percent of police departments have fewer than ten officers.

Stern, a retired police officer with 20 years of service -- which included a ten-year stint as a municipal police chief in York -- has been a public advocate for regional policing. At a February 2012 meeting to discuss combining seven police forces in Schuylkill County, Stern said that regionalization "is the only way to move forward in this commonwealth. There are over 1,200 municipal police departments in this commonwealth, more than any other state," he said at the meeting. "It creates a problem when you have elected officials in smaller municipalities trying to keep the same level of public safety that you have had, or want to have, but with the budgets and the economy the way it is, it makes it very difficult." 

Closer to home, police chiefs are weighing in on the impact that a consolidated police force would have on providing adequate safety. Chief Simpson thinks the residents of New Garden Township would benefit on several levels, chiefly in the area of police protection and subsequent investigation. 

"We're able to respond to calls for service, but the question is, how do we handle the follow-up?" Simpson said. "Each case should go someplace into a system that can do a follow-up – such as proper canvassing and logging evidence. Right now, we [New Garden Township Police] don't have a lot of that. I think in a merged agency, you can set up your personnel to have resources to put to that, and when you start to deal with those things, you can change the complexion of your community and its quality of life." 

Simpson also said that a regional police department creates a "uniformity" of service, where all personnel are "on the same page" of law enforcement principles.

"In any community, you can see one police force operation one way, and then in another municipality, a police force is run differently," he said. "When you have a larger, merged agency such as what we're proposing, you will most likely find a uniform, consistent, high level of professional service."

The idea may still be in the talking phase, but if the final votes determine that a regional police department will be incorporated, there is a template for everyone to follow. DCED's "Regional Police Services in Pennsylvania, A Manual for Local Government Officials" is now in its tenth edition, and serves as a primer for developing a consolidated police department. In seven chapters, the document provides details on how departments can consolidate personnel, equipment, facilities and finances. 

Developing a consolidated police department, the document states, begins with establishing a regional police commission to serve as an oversight group for the unit, which is usually made up of one elected official from each of the participating municipalities. The commission would make policy decisions regarding budgets and staffing levels, as well as rules and regulations. 

The commission will also be responsible for selecting a police chief, who would oversee a unit made up of officers, specialists and administrative support [see sample organizational chart on Page Xa].  

Should the municipalities move forward on establishing a regional force, determining where the headquarters will be located may end up being a happy problem for the three municipalities. In short, a location would need to be found and a new, centralized facility would need to be built. Currently, the idea of housing a combined force in any of the current police locations would be nearly unthinkable; the New Garden Township Police Department occupies a temporary set of joined trailers, which has served as fuel for Chief Simpson to ask the New Garden Board of Supervisors to consider the possibility of constructing an 8,000-square-foot facility in its place. The Kennett Township Building would not provide adequate space, nor would the police station in Kennett Square Borough. One-time funding for the construction of the site would need to come from all three municipalities. 

After absorbing the sticker shock of investing in the construction of a new location, however, the yearly cost of operating a regional police force may, in fact, be less expensive than the way money is currently being spent on policing in the three municipalities. In a DCED cost analysis of ten consolidated police departments in Pennsylvania in 1988-89, nine of the ten departments operated at an average 24 percent lower cost when compared to nearby traditional police departments who served communities comparable to those served by the consolidated departments. Cost savings, the analysis said, resulted from the need for fewer police officers, fewer vehicles, fewer ranking positions and fewer police facilities.

Determining the costs paid for by each community will be based on factors that relate to the demographic and economic make-up of each municipality, broken down according to population, land area, property values, and the tax structure of each community. 

"I don't believe there is an overhwhelming cost savings flow," said Scudder Stevens, chairman of the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors. "My understanding is that you're not going to save any money right now, but you may be saving money in terms of where you go in the future." 

When Stevens ran for a seat on the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors in 2011, he expressed concern whether investing in a police force in the township was a fiscally responsble idea, given that, in his eyes, the bulk of police protection in the township was being done by the State Police. In the years since, he has been satisfied that while the Kennett Township police unit is not comparable to one in a major urban center, "having our own police force provides us with a level of protection that didn't exist in previous years."

"I think we have reached a point where we need something more than State Police protection," said Stevens, who has met with representatives from the Kennett Square Borough and New Garden Township about the concept of regional policing. "That's not to say that the State Police don't do a good job, but there are limits as to what they can do. They aren't our private police. They're also not answerable to the concerns of the community. Having someone who is repsonsible to the concerns of the community is important in ths picture."

One of the key hurdles to overcome in the establishment of a consolidated police department is in the potential of seeing the loss in the comfort level that a town gets with a long-established local force. It's a thorny issue in the centralization concept, and one that may increase a community's disengagement with its police force. If, for instance, one neighborhood in a municipality has known of only one or two officers from their local police department for years, the sudden appearance of a new officer or officers may give the impression that police protection may not be as effective as it had been.

“Studies on regional police departments conducted by the former Department of Community Affairs show improvements in training and personnel efficiency, improved police management and supervision, reduced costs, and improved career enhancement opportunities for police officers," said Kennett Square Borough Police Chief Edward Zunino via e-mail. "On the flip side of the coin, [a] regional police department is governed by representatives from the different member municipalities, which may appear somewhat unfavorable to some residents."    

"Under this consolidated system, a municipality will lose local control," said Chief McCarthy. "Also, with a merged system, response time to police calls goes down. Let's say you join the forces together, and we get a call in one township to respond. With a new location, sometimes that could be a hike to get to the location, whereas it used to be much closer to get to the location."  

Chief Simpson said that in a centralized system, residents will not only retain their current officers, but get to know new ones. "I don't think it changes with a bigger police department," he said. "There are bigger pieces with it. Don't think about having borders of your jurisdiction. Think of yourself as being a patrol sector." 

Simpson was once a part of a 70-member police force in the City of Newark. "We still knew the community and the community still knew us," he said. "We really worked it. I don't see a regional agency of that size, but let's say the agency will be 30 people. The public won't lose a well-known officer. He or she will still be there, but they'll get to know another officer or two.

"Each unit has a need, and pooling us together may not reduce those needs, because we still have service demands," Simpson added. "You still need a third partner, or in some cases a fourth, in order to bring those costs into a proper framework. If one community had a specific need, such as a growth in population, you may be better able to absorb into and deal with the increased need for service." 

Chief Zunino said that because there will be patrol zones established in a centralized police unit, "it would make sense that officers already familiar with certain zones would have those assignments. Much has been done in our borough in the last 20 years by many people and groups to make it what it is today, and the police department is a large part of that," he said. "We will continue our work to maintain the accomplishments we have achieved." 

Although he said that various parts of a regional police unit "sound attractive," Stevens is adopting a wait-and-see stance, as he and other authorities wait to see the findings of the feasibility study.

"It's figuring how to get the communications and politics of it going, and determining who the players are going to be," he said. "I'm open to looking at the whole process. I see a lot of value in it. I see some complications, but I know that [other state municipalities] have done it successfully.  Im very gingerly walking down the path, in order to determine the benefits and the detriments. We're really at the very beginning and its vitally important to get all of those questions on the table."  

"There is proof positive that [a centralized police department] can be sustained," Simpson said. "Ten years from now, we'll wonder why we weren't doing it this way all along. When I think of the partners in this idea, we all have a common interest. We're right here beside each other. We could do a lot more as one unit, as opposed to being three different islands." 

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail rgaw@chestercounty.com.



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