By David Walsh, Chief of Police, Appleton, Wisconsin, Police Department
any articles celebrate successful efforts at merging or consolidating police services. Not all such efforts result in a successful complete merger of departments, however, and it is important to examine the barriers—real and manufactured—that may stand in the way of police consolidation initiatives. Toward that end, what follows is a compendium of circumstances that can damage a potential merger. These lessons, although sometimes painful, serve as guideposts for those who are directed or encouraged to explore the issue. What follows is not meant to dissuade entities from merging, but rather is meant to encourage thoughtful consideration of the issues involved.
In northeast Wisconsin, the city of Appleton, with a population of 72,000, and the town of Grand Chute, with a population of 20,000, share miles of common borders and are the two largest municipal entities in Outagamie County. Through the 1980s and 1990s, the communities suffered through a contentious series of annexation disagreements. These “border wars” resulted in a remarkably jagged municipal border, characterized by several islands and peninsulas where town land is surrounded by city land, and vice versa.
Grand Chute has a bustling shopping center surrounded by a retail sprawl. The population of 20,000 swells to more than 70,000 during the day, requiring a wide variety of police services. It is increasingly difficult for the town to balance the urban policing needs during the day with the bedroom community needs after businesses close. Spreading supervisors through the service demands and schedule demands is a challenge, as the town needs line-level employees to handle calls. Policing is generally described as reactive with officers responding to service calls, but with little formal, long-term problem-solving efforts. With no local sales tax, retail activity does not directly support municipal government.
Appleton has a carefully crafted proactive strategy for dealing with community problems. Service demands divide across shifts relatively equally. But the city’s northern district, which borders the town, has stretched farther and farther from the geographic center, and finding effective ways to police across the geography has become a challenge. Additionally, the city command structure has some ability to absorb more line-level employees with no degradation in supervision.
While those brief situational sketches are important for context, the real push to consider consolidation came because the Grand Chute police chief retired. An interim chief was retained. That individual had previously served as the interim police chief in Appleton and was familiar with policing issues in both locales. Without a permanent investment in either agency, the interim chief was particularly well suited to consider policing needs without historical baggage. It was his willingness to broach the topic that made any merger study possible.
The Grand Chute chairman (an elected position that serves as the de facto leader of the town board) contacted Appleton’s mayor and expressed an interest in considering a merger of police services. That contact mushroomed into Grand Chute presenting a formal request for proposal process on a police merger. Ultimately, Appleton was selected to provide a more detailed analysis of how a merger might be crafted. A deputy police chief from Appleton was assigned as Grand Chute’s interim police chief. He and the Appleton police chief set about detailing their merger plan.
From this process, a clear list of six things that can quickly derail a merger were discovered.
- Disagreeing on goals
- Failing to involve all players
- Ignoring community history
- Incautiously using consultants
- Reckless naming
- Forgetting it’s about people
These six items, individually and collectively, can erode political and operational support for a merger. By examining each in detail, it may be possible to develop proactive approaches to protect a process against such threats.
1. Disagreeing on goals. Elected officials on both sides of the municipal line agreed to three elements as indicators of “success.”
They stated the merger must
- increase the quality of police service,
- offer long-term financial gains for both entities, and
- obtain buy-in from community stakeholders.
These indicators were developed with the hope of providing realistic expectations. They were repeatedly part of presentations to the governing bodies, the community, and the employees. Yet as soon as they were stated aloud, they were often discarded in favor of more tangible and immediate goals.
An increase in quality is a subjective idea, to be sure. It quickly became apparent that officers, citizens, and elected officials had wildly different expectations for police service levels. Some believed that there remained value in having officers respond to every single call for service, regardless of the issue (that is, call the police, you get to see a uniform). Others bemoaned the potential increase in geographical responsibility. Still others feared that merging two thinly staffed departments would simply spread the pain. Though many measures were developed to address response time, committed time, problem-solving flexibility, and the like, these measures often fell on deaf ears.
Elected officials demanded immediate financial incentives (the phrase “what’s in it for us” was oft repeated). Both entities touted a long-standing financial investment in their police department that they felt merited a rapid financial return upon merging. Budget numbers supported the potential for significant savings over a five-year period, but the initial investment did not radically change either entity’s line-item policing budget. The lack of immediacy became a very hard sell.
Regarding stakeholder buy-in, it was quickly apparent that people have strong feelings about their police. Comments were made about an entity’s identity being tied to having its own independent police department. Though the relative quality of police personnel was never a factor in planning discussions, it became a defining issue for community members. In essence, each entity thought its police officers were the best educated, the most highly skilled, and the most qualified to serve the municipality.
2. Failing to involve all players. Though original discussions hovered around the two municipal police departments, the county sheriff department staffs a patrol function and expressed interest in providing services to Grand Chute. Eventually, the town board elected to examine only the Appleton proposal, but this choice was not universally well received. Though they had no say in the vote, many county supervisors (who are also Grand Chute residents) were strong proponents of the sheriff’s department and became openly hostile to a singular examination of the Appleton proposal. The sheriff himself remained neutral during the study period, but some hard feelings surfaced among line staff regarding the rejection of the county proposal. Not involving the county in early discussions resulted in hurt feelings and suspicion of motives.
3. Ignoring community history. As was mentioned earlier, the “border wars” between entities set the stage for some relational angst. The Appleton police chief had been in the area for only six months before the merger issue arose. Without a sufficient understanding of the depth of animosity between the entities, it was difficult to anticipate the antipathy that developed. Despite numerous meetings, presentations, and reports aimed at explaining the motivation for the merger, factions in Appleton saw nefarious intentions behind Grand Chute’s every action, and vice versa. Angry tirades about being taken advantage of were pervasive, and each entity had firm beliefs that the other was getting the better deal.
4. Incautiously using consultants. Grand Chute insisted that an outside consultant review the feasibility of a merger and provide a report. A consultant was hired by Grand Chute alone. As a contract employee of Grand Chute, the consultant spent some period of time with the town department, gathering information. After a cursory review of available data, the consultant determined the merger was not feasible without significant personnel cuts. Though the examination was lacking in depth, it became a sticking point early in discussions. This problem was compounded by not involving finance professionals from both entities in early discussions. Ultimately, there likely would have been value in a comprehensive review by an outside consultant—hired by both entities and beholden to neither—later in the process. The snap use of a consultant early in the process served only to waste valuable staff time and already limited funds.
5. Reckless naming. Little consideration was given to a name for any merged department early in the research. The Appleton chief often mentioned that it mattered little what name was on the side of the car as long as the officer who emerged from it was professional and committed. He was wrong. Arguments were made for various iterations of the municipality names singularly and combined. Each left some faction unsatisfied. Do not discount the power of a name.
6. Forgetting it’s about people. Each box on a detailed organizational chart denotes a person. In the excitement and flurry of planning a merged organization, those boxes sometimes became just boxes. When ranks (sergeant, for instance) became pay grades instead of supervisory assignments, even the same pay rate did not soothe the insult. Those who had served as investigators were faced with the possibility of returning to patrol duties. Seniority concerns, while technically a union issue rather than a municipality issue, involve pride and a sense of honor. No one wanted to be thought of as a lesser employee simply because of the merged department. Hurt feelings multiply and fester. In the pressure to find an appropriate mix of positions and assignments, sometimes people become boxes. Leadership, however, is supposed to be about people.
Despite the six elements listed, merger consideration can be of tremendous value to an organization. Even without a formal merger, Appleton and Grand Chute developed several new cooperative ventures, including sharing of police school liaison and investigative resources and a stronger mutual aid agreement. The in-depth research provides a starting point for future consolidation studies, even beyond police departments. It caused each department to carefully consider what services are offered, how the services are rendered, and what the future needs might be. In essence, each entity performed a thorough self-assessment. That assessment also included staffing and budget projections for several years. These have served as guideposts as both entities continue to struggle with a decrease in financial resources.
Ultimately, the deputy chief who had served as Grand Chute’s interim police chief was hired for the permanent position. After 18 months of intense media scrutiny, contentious board meetings, and anxious employee gatherings, the interim police chief was well prepared to assume the daily responsibility of running the department without also directing a merger experiment.
Be remarkably transparent at every step. Be prepared for open records requests for email and other documents, then hand them over readily and without resentment. Reach out to the media so they gain a thorough understanding of the concepts. Educate and communicate at every step.
Do not fear merger efforts. No doubt, in an age of dwindling resource, but steady service demands, calls for consolidation will come. Departments must identify ways to study the issue while navigating the political and organizational land mines. Do not fear the exercise, but remain attentive to the six items described earlier. By navigating through these six elements, customized to the community served, it is possible to avoid costly mistakes, public turmoil, and general resistance. This will allow a true consolidation study toward the ultimate laudable goals of fighting crime andv solving problems. ■
Please cite as:
David Walsh, "Consolidation Caveats," The Police Chief 78 October 2011): 118125.