State Police: Officials: Local police forces costly [The Sentinel, Carlisle, Pa.]
(Sentinel, The (Carlisle, PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 22--Heavier demands and a rise in professionalism have made it more costly and complex than ever for a local municipality to start its own police department.
Three veteran police chiefs agree that as fiscal pressures increase, municipalities are more likely to contract out for coverage or combine their departments with neighboring townships or boroughs.
"We really do not need more municipal police departments," said James Adams, Upper Allen Township police chief. "Regionalization and consolidation can be truly more cost efficient and better from a law enforcement standpoint."
Adams said there are currently about 1,200 municipal police departments in Pennsylvania ranging in size from a couple part-time officers to the Philadelphia City Police, the largest department in the state. While he has heard of no new departments forming in recent years, Adams said there have been plenty of mergers and a few cases where municipalities have completely disbanded small one-to-two-man operations purely for financial reasons.
Often, the question of whether to disband a force hinges on if the municipality could afford local police without a substantial tax increase, Adams said.
"It all comes down to what level of professionalism and service you want in your police department," he said.
Boiling Springs residents recently called on the South Middleton Township supervisors to implement a local police force instead of relying on state police, but supervisors said the start-up and maintenance cost would be high.
Recent interviews with current and former police chiefs confirm what South Middleton officials have been saying since village residents made their request in August. Police department expenditures account for roughly one-third to one-half of municipal general fund budgets, officials said.
"It's the biggest piece of the pie," Adams said. "Historically, it's what you are going to find in any municipality."
There are reasons why the police force makes up the biggest percentage.
For one, there is the around-the-clock coverage many departments provide, Adams said. He said police officers routinely use specialized equipment and tend to be among the most highly-trained municipal government employees.
In South Middleton, one-third to one-half of the township budget would equate to about $1.3 million to $2 million more in additional expenses, and that is just to maintain an already existing department. It would not include the start-up costs.
"It would be very expensive," said Barry Sherman, Middlesex Township police chief. "I would imagine $3 (million) to $4 million."
Sherman said Middlesex allocated about $1 million this year for its police department, or about one-third of its total $2.9 million budget. With about 7,000 residents, Middlesex Township is about half the size in population of South Middleton, Sherman said.
Middlesex Township started its police department in 1968. Prior to that, it received coverage primarily from state police. Hired part-time in 1973, Sherman was only the second officer on the force.
"The residents wanted a more local police department," Sherman recalled. "They signed a petition and brought it before the supervisors. The board decided to do it."
The decision made sense given the increasingly heavy traffic volumes on the Miracle Mile stretch of the Harrisburg Pike between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 81 interchanges.
In Hampden Township, many citizens were opposed to starting a local police force and were concerned about the long-range costs of maintaining a department, said Ken Fetrow, a life-long resident who served as police chief for 35 years and is now a township commissioner.
Fetrow said residents, including his relatives, questioned the wisdom of paying more in local taxes for a service already provided by state police. It took the work of a township supervisor to push the idea through to approval in late 1959.
Fetrow said he is not sure what prompted the lobbying effort. He does not think it was due to a perceived uptick in crime. Back then, Hampden Township was mostly farmland with some commercial development along Trindle Road and the Carlisle Pike. The population was about 9,000. Today, the population of Hampden Township is closing on 30,000.
More than inflation
Compared to what is required today, it was much easier and far less expensive to implement a police force decades ago, according to local officials. The differences in the up-front costs go beyond just inflation and relate mainly to changing trends in police training and the scope of the work.
When Adams started as a patrolman in Upper Allen in 1978, state law only required municipalities to send new hires to the police academy within the first 12 months of their employment.
To avoid paying the cost of training, some municipalities worked the new hire until just before the end of their first year and then dismissed them, Adams said. Today, before they could obtain arrest powers, all municipal police officers within Pennsylvania are required to be certified after undergoing 754 hours of mandatory training.
Along with training, the duties of an officer and the complexity of law enforcement changed with the times, leading to an increase in salary and benefits through collective bargaining.
When Fetrow started, the hourly pay for an officer was a little more than $1 with no benefits, no vacation or time-off. The entire Hampden Township police budget was about $15,000. Today, the average police officer costs the township about $100,000 per year.
The costs for the equipment has also increased over the years.
"My first police car had a four-channel radio, siren and a red light," Adams recalled. Cruisers today are equipped with high-tech radio equipment, mobile data terminals, mobile video equipment, speed timing devices, prisoner cages and automated external defibrillators.
Right now, to replace a car, it costs Upper Allen about $50,000, Adams said. His township operates under a replacement schedule for its fleet. To implement its own force, South Middleton Township would have to buy a starter fleet of vehicles.
Costs vs. need
There are a lot of questions South Middleton would need to answer before it could estimate the cost of a new service, Adams said. "One of the first is 'What do you want from your department?'"
While local police could respond more quickly, there is an expense that goes with the service, Sherman said.
"It's all in what residents want to pay," he said.
Fetrow added South Middleton officials would need to weigh the costs against public opinion.
"More or less, you want to go to the people," the former chief said.
Hampden Township was fortunate that the changing demands on law enforcement were balanced by growth in development, Fetrow said.
Even if a majority of South Middleton residents support a department, there will always be citizens who question the need for the expense.
"I look at my position as a CEO of a small business," Adams said. He explained how often the service rendered by police officers is only really appreciated when there is a need or an emergency.
"Why is our budget $3.5 million? Ask someone who is having their door kicked in at 3 a.m.," Adams said. "They are very thankful there are three guys out there willing to come to their aide."
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