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Local leaders weigh in on regional police study

10/29/2014 09:18PM ● Published by Lev

 

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

 

On Oct. 15, local police chiefs, township officials and political leaders of four southern Chester County municipalities met at the New Garden Township Building to review the first phase of a study of forming a regional police department to serve the townships of London Grove, New Garden and Kennett, as well as the Borough of Kennett Square.

The 42-page report, prepared and presented by Ron Stern of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) and Chief Joseph L. Kirschner of the Governor's Center for Local Government Services (GCLGS), gave a broad overview of what a regional police force would look like, and how it would protect a total population of 34,297 people in the four municipalities. In addition, the study gave information on demographics, existing and projected police personnel, and the costs associated with funding such a consolidated unit.

"Similar community needs and issues, growing cultural diversity, county-wide drug enforcement issues, growing regional and county-wide traffic problems, fiscal constraints and other substantial issues have raised new challenges for municipalities and their police departments," the report reads. "It has become necessary in many locations to consider ways to improve police service while stabilizing future costs. The concept of regional policing is one option that many municipalities are now exploring."

Pennsylvania has been a leader in the nation's regional police force concept, with more than 30 such units currently in place.

The study gave a projected police coverage area for the department which, if implemented, would be responsible for five zones in a 50.1-square-mile area, extending from Kennett Township along the Route 52 corridor on the eastern portion of the area, along Route 1 at the region's northern tip, to the areas east of Jennersville and west of West Grove, and encompassing southern Chester County to the Delaware state line. [See chart on Page XA.]

The study recommends that a regional police department, if implemented, should consist of 35 sworn-in officers – about one officer for every thousand residents -- a figure that is in step with those of other regional police units in the state, such as Westtown-East Goshen and Pocono Regional.

Calculating area population, the estimated number of police incidents per year, and the time spent on each incident and other staffing equations, the study determined that if a regional police unit were established in southern Chester County, it would require the services of 25 patrol officers, three additional detectives, four additional patrol sergeants, two lieutenants, as well as one police chief and four additional administrative personnel.

The study's examination of the area's crime rate indicates that perhaps southern Chester County is ripe for a regional police force. In 2013, three of the four municipalities reported 1,085 crimes, including murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and other serious infractions, for an average of 21 serious crimes per week, per area. In light of such numbers, the study recommended that the regional force employ three detective positions. At various times, or if needed to provide additional patrol staffing, these detectives could work in uniform, including wearing an identifiable "soft" uniform, should they be required to enter schools.

The DCED made two additional recommendations in the study: That the regional unit be governed by a five-member "Regional Police Commission" made up of elected officials from each participating municipality; and that the regional department be headquartered in a new police facility that is at least 10,000 square feet in size.

Based on a 39-person staff, the proposed first-year budget for a regional police force in southern Chester County was estimated to be $5.299 million in 2015 -- or an annual "cost per officer" of $151,406. For this amount, the municipalities would receive a total of 59,570 on-duty service hours from the 35 officers. These figures not only reflect annual compensation -- which would be estimated at $4.612 million -- but other operating costs, such as various forms of insurance, legal fees and services, building and maintenance costs, utility costs, administrative and operational costs and "conversion" costs, such as uniforms, firearms and computers.

The method of dividing the per-municipality costs of operating a regional police unit was generated by population, population density per square mile, square miles and road miles. Based on these figures, the study calculated that New Garden Township would be responsible for absorbing 27.65 percent of the costs associated with a regional police unit; Kennett Square Borough would absorb 26.23 percent; Kennett Township, 23.25 percent; and London Grove Township, 22.87 percent. [See chart on Page XA.]

Under this scenario, both Kennett Square Borough and New Garden would figure to save their townships a lot of money in annual police operating costs. Currently, New Garden's annual police budget sits at $1.779 million; in a regional police structure, its annual budget would be $1.465 million, a savings of $314,000. Similarly, Kennett Square Borough's current police costs are $1.635 million; in a regional unit, the borough's costs would be $1.389 million, an annual savings of more than $245,000.

Conversely, Kennett Township, whose police force currently operates on an annual $313,000 budget, would have to spend $1.232 million to be a part of a regional police unit, an increase of nearly $920,000. Given that London Grove Township has no police force of its own, the annual costs to the township in a regional police scenario would be more than $1.211 million a year. 

[In contrast, the East Marlborough Township Police Department, which has chosen not to participate in the study, has an annual police budget of $169,000.]

In its conclusion, the DCED's analysis of the data and information obtained throughout the study “strongly supported” that a regional police department in southern Chester County be established, citing several advantages a regional force would have:

 

* The ability to establish a uniform and consistent police enforcement program;

* The ability to utilize police personnel more effectively by staffing and deploying officers based upon geography, workload, calls for service patterns and crime trends;

* The ability to conduct more thorough investigations by the creation of a full-time detective division;

* The ability to utilize many special units, plain-clothes units, traffic enforcement details, and others to address special challenges and needs as they arise in each community; and

* The ability to eliminate costs associated with part-time personnel, along with the opportunity to provide better training, supervision and management.

 

"I think this area is wonderful and safe, but there are real issues happening in southern Chester County," said New Garden Township Police Chief Gerald Simpson. "Those police blotters are real, and they happen. I look forward to match those threats and challenges and get them resolved or eliminated, and regional policing is a means to effectively have the resources to deal with those issues."

Throughout the course of exploring the concept of a regional unit, Simpson has admittedly served as its most vocal advocate, partly because he sees the role of policing as part of a larger whole -- one that involves the entire community and its law enforcement -- rather than as the protection of just a small chunk of territory. He calls regional policing "a forced multiplier," an opportunity to extend the impact of a police unit much farther than a local unit could do. 

"Kennett Square's problems are New Garden's problems," he said. "New Garden's problems are London Grove's problems. These are the people of our community, and we are in a people business. It takes people and personnel to deal with human problems. There is more sense to this, more reward than risk, but only if we are all able to talk it through."

To most of the local leaders who have read through the findings of the report, however, there is a shared sense of cautious optimism, and for good reason. The Oct. 15 study serves as a mere "climb aboard" introduction to the idea of regional policing, in hopes that enough information is shared and enthusiasm generated to enable these four municipalities to move to the next phase of the report -- a self-assessment that compares how a regional police unit formed in southern Chester County would comply with the DCED's 123 standards. If the concept is found compliant with these standards, a third and final phase will provide a formal assessment that sharpens the pencil even more on formally establishing a regional police force.

Whether or not these municipalities commit to a regional unit depends on the willingness of their residents to do so, local leaders said.

"There's a lot of research here that needs to be worked on," said Scudder Stevens, chairman of the Kennett Township Board of Supervisors. "I've not thought it appropriate that the supervisors arbitrarily make a decision on these kinds of investments. Assuming that we want to do it, it will be a matter of educating the community and having them tell us what their needs are.

"Assuming we go forward, then the question then changes to, 'How do we go about doing it?'" Stevens added. “It would become a question of whether we would be looking to obtain financial assistance and grants, and give consideration to whether it would be appropriate to have a police and emergency services tax, or whether it would be a part of the regular budget."

Stevens said that he plans to initiate discussion on the concept with his fellow supervisors and Township Manager Lisa Moore very soon, as well as elicit the opinions of the township's residents in the coming weeks. The subject of policing in the township has drawn a mixed bag of opinions, with some residents saying they are comfortable with a two-person unit of Police Chief Albert McCarthy and officer Lydell Nolt, complemented by back-up from the State Police. Others have told Stevens that the township should exclusively use the State Police for police protection. Either way, Stevens said that in his three years as supervisor, he has seen an increase of crime in the area, predominantly on the fringes of the township, which may keep the conversation of a regional police unit driving forward.

"On some level, there would be more focus, more coordination of policing efforts," Stevens said. "Certainly, at first blush, it seems as if it would provide better protection for the township, as well as the whole region." 

Although Kennett Square Borough Police Chief Edward Zunino said that the study serves as "an excellent starting point" to the idea of establishing a regional police force in Southern Chester County, he said he does not want anything to compromise the increased level of police protection throughout Kennett Square, which he feels has helped revitalize the town.

"I started here in the 1970s, and Kennett Square was pretty rowdy and had a reputation," Zunino said. "Right now, families can feel safe walking the streets. We can't afford to give up on any of that. We have to keep these security measures in place. We want to make sure that we maintain that quality of service."

Like Stevens, Zunino believes that several more questions still need to be answered before the borough fully commits to being a part of a regional police force. In the coming weeks, he plans to reach out to other police units who have been merged into regional units to get an understanding of what improvements -- and shortfalls -- they experienced through absorption.

"At this time, we also want to reach out to our communities and ask them to become involved," he said. "We want to encourage people to check the website and feel free to contact either [Kennett Square Mayor] Matt Fetick with any questions they might have at any time. We want them to get involved in this decision."

If there is a township in the study that faces having to wrestle the potential benefits of participating in a regional police unit against the cost of doing so, it is London Grove Township, which does not have a police force of its own and relies heavily on the State Police in Avondale for police protection. If the township's supervisors ultimately decide to see the study through its third and final phase and, in effect, "sign on" to be a part of a regional police force, its citizens would be faced with having to pay about $742 per household every year for the privilege of getting round-the-clock police protection.

Having an increased police protection in the township trumps the costs associated with operating costs, said Mike Pickel, Chairman of the township's board of supervisors. After reading articles in the Chester County Press about the study, Pickel asked permission to have London Grove Township climb aboard, namely as a potential solution to stem the flow of illegal drugs through the West Grove area.

"Let's say that we didn't do this, and ten years from now, London Grove has a crime problem," Pickel said. "The State Police are understaffed, so we won't get the level of police protection that our residents need, which begins an outcry to start our own police force. It's going to cost a lot more for London Grove to begin a police force on its own than to join a regional policing effort. It may cost $1.2 million now, but are we going to save $800,000 by being a part of a regional force now, rather than by doing it on our own in the future?”

Pickel said that he has already initiated discussions with township residents about expanding police coverage in London Grove through regional policing.

"Our tax dollars are spreading thin, and to think we're going to continue to get the same level of safety from the State Police that we have, is foolish," he said. "I don't want to be sitting in my living room ten to 15 years from now, knowing that we have a crime problem in London Grove Township, and knowing that I didn't at least ask if we could join in on this study.

"Being a part of this study is a way to start the dialogue."

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

 

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