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In an Era of Austerity: Chief-to-Chief Lessons on the Consolidation of Law Enforcement Services

By Jeremy M. Wilson, Associate Professor and Director, Program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan; Bernard Melekian, Former Director, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services; and Debra R. Cohen McCullough, PhD, Senior Analyst, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Research and Development Division, Washington, D.C.


Image courtesy of John Sartin © Shutterstock

The downturn in the economy that began in 2008 and continues today, particularly at the city and county level, has had a devastating impact on local policing. The COPS Office analysis of 2011 estimated that at least 40,000 law enforcement positions were lost through either layoffs or defunding of vacated positions.1 This loss of capacity, which does not include an estimated 28,000 furloughed officers, has produced enormous changes in the nature of police service delivery.

The projected nature of these changes include greater usage of technology as a force multiplier, greater usage of civilians—both as employees and volunteers—alternative responses to non-emergency radio calls, and consolidation of both core services and entire agencies.2 It is within this last category that the discussion of mergers, contracting, and sharing services occurs.

For local government, public safety costs consume significant portions of the general fund budget. Managing those costs is one of the primary challenges for city and county administrators. To that end, some administrators have embraced the concept of service consolidation. There are several forms that these mergers can take, but all of them involve the blending of distinct work cultures into a single entity.

Merging police organizations, in particular, is a complex process. Organizations have unique cultures, policies, and procedures. Moreover, efforts to consolidate services may have profound effects—both good and bad—on employees.

To help police organizations address these challenges, the Michigan State University (MSU), School of Criminal Justice, with the support of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office, has undertaken several initiatives. Neither MSU nor the COPS Office seeks to endorse any particular model or even to suggest that any one concept is valid. What is needed, however, is a cadre of evidence-based research that will give police administrators the information they need to make valid choices for their own agencies. Michigan State researchers convened a focus group on “Merging Organizational Policy” at a meeting of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police held on February 6, 2013, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The session sought to develop lessons for those considering or leading consolidation efforts. All meeting attendees with experience in merging organizational policy were invited to attend and share their insights and recommendations on topics such as pay and benefits, pensions, work schedules, ranks and positions, organizational structure, culture, hiring, and training. They discussed issues their agencies confronted when they merged into a regional organization, reduced its combined staffing, participated in regionally shared services, determined what services to provide and how much to charge for them when contracting, and adopted a public safety model integrating police, fire, and emergency medical services.

More than 60 persons attended, including representatives of state police, police and sheriff departments, public safety departments, dispatch services, and university agencies. The overall themes and anonymous quotes from the participants follow.


Merging Departments in an Effort to Reduce Staff

Participants emphasized the need for compatibility between departments before they attempted a merger. One participant noted the merging departments “need to have the same philosophy, and the administrations need to understand what the policing philosophy is going to be.” This same participant noted a Michigan case where the merging departments “had the same command structure, but the policing philosophy wasn’t the same. On paper, everything looked great, but it didn’t work in practice.”

Several participants noted the need to ensure political leadership of both communities fully supported the change. They emphasized that political leaders must understand what costs would decrease or increase, as well as how resources would flow between communities.

One participant, discussing a successful merger in his community, said, “The difference for us was, politically, it was driven by the city manager. It was driven from the top. There was a common front from public leadership.”

Another, noting unsuccessful efforts, identified the problem as having a common authority established to manage the merged departments. The entities “created an authority and authority board, with members from both [entities]. But the problem was anything we tried to do went to the authority then to the individual boards [of both jurisdictions] then back to the authority. Another community also tried but it also failed because of too much politics between [the entities].” The latter failure, this participant added, resulted in both jurisdictions paying more for fewer services.

Some participants said incremental steps could ultimately lead to success. One said, “We did it in small steps. We first started contracting with the sheriff’s office, for the local jail, for lock up service, for records. It has to come up in steps and be something you can swallow. If you take small steps, there’s a higher probability it will work.”

Creating a new culture for a merged department will “also take time,” one participant said, and “must involve everybody otherwise it’s not going to happen.” Another estimated that such culture change could take “about 20 years” or “until the last person has left from each organization.”

Several cautioned against looking to mergers to save money. One noted a need to “dispel the myth that you’re going to save money.” Another added, “there are very little savings you’re going to realize, especially now. Everybody has been cut. Nobody is flush. You’re merging bone to bone, so real savings is going to be marginal.”


PCASS Brochure Cover, USDOJ COPS Office
The Program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services (PCASS)
Responding to the field’s need for evidence-based research on police consolidation and shared services, the COPS Office awarded additional funding to the Michigan State University (MSU), School of Criminal Justice in FY12 for the Program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services (PCASS). Launched in 2013, PCASS provides a single-point resource on structural options for delivering police services in an era of dwindling budgets. PCASS is also conducting several original research projects on the implementation, costs, and benefits of police mergers and consolidations and under what circumstances various approaches are feasible. In addition to convening the focus group and reporting on results through this article, MSU’s multi-faceted approach includes developing the following:
  • The PCASS website (http://policeconsolidation.msu.edu) to centralize information on consolidation and shared services
  • A report highlighting the experiences of those agencies engaged in police-fire consolidation, which is useful for practitioners looking to connect with peers who experienced consolidation*
  • Training webinars and executive primers on organizational policy development, the use of non-sworn staff, and media communication strategies
  • Videos of practitioners discussing the lessons they learned

By developing a well-researched body of knowledge on police consolidation and shared services, and making this research accessible in user-friendly formats, the PCASS program can help agencies to decide for themselves whether they should pursue these avenues, what to expect if they do, and possible pitfalls to avoid. For more information on PCASS, contact Dr. Jeremy Wilson at jwilson@msu.edu. For information on programs from the COPS Office visit www.cops.usdoj.gov or contact the Response
Center at AskCopsRC@usdoj.gov.



* Jeremy Wilson, Alexander Weiss, and Clifford Grammich, Public Safety Consolidation: What Is It? How Does It Work? Be on the Lookout (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, August 2012), http://ric-zai-inc.com/Publications/cops-w0659-pub.pdf (accessed August 15, 2013).

Sharing Services Regionally

Participants were asked what problems might be associated with shared services, whether benefits outweigh costs, and what happens if an incident handled by a shared-services team goes badly in their communities.

Participants said previous informal cooperation could help more formal collaborations succeed. One said, “You have to have pre-established relationships. If we were forced into a relationship, we probably wouldn’t have been as successful.”

Many participants noted leadership on such units usually goes to those with the most experience. One said, “You have to consider what level of expertise do they have? What are the capabilities of the personnel? If you do something like that, then you have to consider not who is chief but who is best qualified to run it?”

Others noted more informal approaches. One said, discussing a city-township crashinvestigation team, “We don’t struggle with who leads. [A city] lieutenant led one year, then [a township officer] another. It’s been a cost-saving effort that has worked well. Another success has been a major-case investigation unit. Whoever doesn’t show up gets appointed to lead.”

Funding issues have varied by perspective. Representatives of larger departments noted often having to underwrite the expenses in shared services for smaller ones.

One said, “We have a larger department, while the smaller agencies don’t have equipment or manpower. So we don’t see savings, while those who participate with us get more than they contribute.”

Another noted that funding inequities are often expected, saying, “The chiefs know there are some inequities, but we don’t want to get into charging each other. The chiefs have played off elected officials wanting to charge for services.”

Yet another noted that memories of an extraordinary case can quell funding concerns, saying, “We had a girl disappear in 1997, and we couldn’t bear the costs of that case. Others helped. Recently, we helped another community with a similar case. Our elected officials remember our 1997 case, so we don’t have funding concerns once we bring that case up.”

Without a permanent or stable source of funding, however, such cooperative efforts can wither when funding dries up. One participant said, “We had a fatal-alcohol crash unit that worked phenomenally for 30 departments in our county. But we lost the grant funding, and it stopped,” although one three-jurisdiction team did continue.

Operational leadership for such teams may vary by jurisdiction or team. One participant noted, “Authority is jurisdictional. We wouldn’t allow another jurisdiction to make tough decisions within ours.” Another noted that SWAT teams can be a particularly difficult subject.

Yet others said they would defer to the special-services team. One said, “We give control to a team that practices together, and the team leader is the leader. The chief prior to me wanted to run everything and it screwed up everything. We’re a county of small communities, so we do everything together.”

Another said, “When we call the emergency-services team and they come in, I’m not going to try to oversee them. Once they take over, they’re in charge of that scene.” Another added, “Once I make the decision to turn the scene over to a team, they have authority. It’s worked seamlessly for us.”


Extending and Charging for Services

Participants were asked how they might determine what services to provide and what to charge for them when an adjoining community, receiving a very modest level of service from the county sheriff, wants to contract for their services instead. Participants said they would want to know above all the motivation of the smaller community in seeking a contract with them.

“Politically, it’s a touchy subject to deal with the sheriff already [providing services],” one said, “unless the sheriff doesn’t want” to provide the services any longer. Another noted, “It’s also tough if a city is doing it to bust a union. What drives it—money or service? We won’t engage if it’s just a tactic. We also won’t engage if our city would suffer” as a result of the contract. A third added, “I wouldn’t do anything if it interfered with the sheriff. If it’s a service issue, that’s diferent.”

Participants also stressed they would wish to provide service on their own terms, or, otherwise, they prefer to avoid providing contract service. The contract providing a staffing allocation level that meets workload demand is particularly important. One said, “If you go into a community and you’re underrepresented, you could fail, and your agency fail… . Your head is going to be on the chopping block. If you say [you need] 20 [officers], and your analysis says 20, but you only get 15, that’s a risk you take. You’ll get beat up by the unions and by the community…[and] put officers in harm’s way. [Understaffing] would be a deal breaker.”

Others also emphasized needing control for branding and operational issues. One noted taking an approach, “similar to what they did in Jacksonville [Florida], with the uniform being that of the city police but the badge being the sheriff’s. Everything is possible, but you need to work it together. I would oppose separate uniforms. If you’re going to make a service work, you have to make it work together.”

Another would resist changing too much to accommodate the contracting community, saying, “If you come to me and say you want my department, then that’s what you’re going to get—my department. If you don’t like it, you can go elsewhere. I would provide one department and service to everybody in the same way. If you want local control, you have to pay for it.”


Adopting a Public Safety Model

Michigan has a relatively high number of public safety agencies where there is at least some degree of integration of police, fire, and emergency medical services. Participants were asked what issues might arise in a transition to these types of public safety agencies.

Many stressed the need to “respect” each department. One said, “I had worked with guys on the fire side for 15 years, but I was still a cop coming in. They were shocked that I’d be in firefighter classes, but the validity that gives you with firefighters is very important. I don’t take over the fire scenes. When they see things like that, you start getting trust… . If you go on like you’re the expert, you’re done. I ask the guys who are there, who are the experts. That makes it easier later to play the trump card of being boss.”

Some cautioned that the public safety model might not work well if the fire agency has a high number of calls. One said, “If the fire complaints are too high, then you won’t be reaching a benefit. If the police complaints outnumber the fire complaints, it will work. If they’re even, or if there is a disproportionate number of fire complaints, then it won’t work.” Another noted providing mutual aid to a neighboring city that had to respond to more fire calls, including one “situation where we had a homicide and house fire going on at the same time.”

One participant noted problems stemming from the lack of change in the former fire department, saying, “We had a fire department that hadn’t made any changes forever. The firefighters were in revolt against the chief. I had been there 16 years, but we met with every single person and talked about their concerns before we started down this road. I said I wouldn’t do it without deputy directors of fire and police. . . . There are no intentions to fully merge . . . because while the police can cross[-train], the firefighters can’t.” Nevertheless, this participant noted, even a partial merger has realized some savings: “In the first ten months, we saved a half-million dollars and we didn’t try that hard.”

Another participant, also from a partially consolidated agency, noted the need for political leadership to achieve full consolidation, saying, “The fire department doesn’t want to do it. We’re not cross-training; that isn’t going to happen. We’re doing partial consolidation, with some police who are cross-trained as public-safety officers. For politicians to come out and say that’s the direction we’re going to go, that’s the direction we need to go—that is what’s needed to take it to the next level.”


Taking Stock

As the focus group participants can attest, each of the organizational changes described above, whether merging departments, sharing services, extending and charging for services, or adopting a public safety model, has operational and logistical implications that merit serious study. Take for example, in the case of public safety consolidation—the cultures of police and fire have significant commonalities, but they also have rather dramatic differences. Both cultures are value-driven and committed to the concept of serving the greater good, even when doing so places their own lives in peril. Both cultures enjoy significant public respect. Yet, a key cultural difference is that the police service may be perceived as highly individualistic, whereas the fire service is very team oriented. While this difference would not seem initially to be significant, it takes on greater importance when developing shift schedules, training modules, and so forth. While the idea of blending these two cultures could seem more appealing from the budgetary perspective, the ongoing debate as to the efficacy of the public safety model seems to reflect an inherent tension between budgetary and operational perspectives. Such budgetary and operational considerations must be identified and addressed in all other types of organizational change as well.

To help agencies address these considerations, and discern and decide for themselves the most appropriate course of action to take for the safety of their communities, MSU, with support from the COPS Office, is developing a cadre of lessons learned in consolidation and shared services, drawn from independent, objective, evidence-based research. The Program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services (PCASS) provides meaningful resources that can provide direction for public administrators during these critical periods of assessment, reassessment, and change.♦


Notes:
1Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, The Impact of the Economic Downturn on American Police Agencies (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, October 2011), http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/RIC/Publications/e101113406_Economic%20Impact.pdf (accessed August 15, 2013).
2Debra R. Cohen McCullough and Deborah L. Spence, eds., American Policing in 2022: Essays on the Future of a Profession (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, September 2012), http://ric-zai-inc.com/Publications/cops-p235-pub.pdf (accessed August 15, 2013).


Please cite as:

Jeremy M. Wilson, Bernard Melekian, and Debra R. Cohen McCullough, "In an Era of Austerity: Chief-to-Chief Lessons on the Consolidation of Law Enforcement Services," The Police Chief 80 (October 2013): 108–112.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 10, October 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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