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Regionalization or Consolidation of
Law Enforcement Services in the United States


Author: Edward J. Tully, January, 2002


The consolidation of the more than 17,000 police agencies throughout the United States into a far fewer number of regional forces has been briefly discussed throughout law enforcement circles for sometime. The discussions date back to the 1950's when a similar idea was proposed, and successfully implemented, by the consolidation of thousands of our rural schools into larger school districts. Rarely in this discussion do the potential merits, or demerits, of the idea come to the surface. The idea of consolidating 17,000 police forces into roughly 1,000 regional departments is quickly rejected as radical, unsettling, and not feasible for many reasons.

First, the idea of losing local control over the police function does not set well with most Americans who live outside of our large cities. In my opinion, most Americans living in rural areas like the idea of knowing some of the individual officers and the chief of police. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that by knowing these individuals they might be able to influence them to their advantage in minor cases. Outside the areas of urban sprawl in America, many people like as little government intrusion in their lives as possible. Giving up local control of a small police department would be tantamount to surrendering part of their independence, and identity, to a distant governing body oblivious to their needs and demands. In some of our more affluent suburban counties, particularly east of the Mississippi River, there are an inordinate number of police agencies. In these areas where a regional force makes the most economic sense, the intense political climate of small towns and the insular pride of the residents does not allow for a serious discussion of the issue.

Secondly, most leaders of small departments in the United States are content with the operation of the department, the services provided, and the quality of the personnel they employ. The same is true of the police officers employed with smaller departments. From their viewpoint there is no reason to consolidate their department into a regional force. Consolidation would bring uncertainty to the status of their employment and the nature of their jobs. Understandably, many of these officers and officials would argue against any effort to consolidate their department with others in the region. While these arguments are self-serving, and perhaps not in the interest of a more professional police service, they are a legitimate expression of the fear of change and the need to preserve the status quo.

Third, the cost to the taxpayers to maintain a small police department is relatively modest and is certainly less than the cost of supporting a larger regional police force. The fact that a regional force would be able to offer more service and protection is rejected by the counter argument that these communities don't need or require additional protection or services.

Fourth, most small police departments in the United States are doing a pretty fair job of maintaining the level of law enforcement that the community desires. Granted they may have to ask a larger agency for help on some cases, but overall, the work they do is quite acceptable in the judgement of the public they serve.

Why then Regionalization?

Given the above arguments, one could reasonably ask, "Why talk about regionalization--or consolidation--since the system we presently have seems to be working fairly well?" Well, there are seven reasons why we should at least be discussing this idea.

First, we are already implementing the concept of regionalization in jails, radio communications, purchasing, records, computers, laboratories, and task forces. The Los Angeles and San Diego Sheriff's Offices are contracting with smaller communities in their counties to provide police services. Las Vegas and Jacksonville have successfully merged police and the office of sheriff into a metropolitan police force. Countywide police forces have been successfully established in many fast growing suburban counties. Overall, these examples of regional police forces have proven to be quite successful in practice and have limited the costs and liabilities of each community involved.

Second, the cost of police-related technology is very high, yet the inherent capabilities of such technology is greater than the needs of most departments. This computer-based technology is easily shared with other users. By not being willing, or able, to share the technology with other departments renders the technology too expensive for smaller departments.

Third, our population demographics, our culture, our economy, and our values continue to be in a state of very rapid change. Our rural areas are losing population to the suburbs and cities. Older cities are losing population to the suburbs and exurbs. The percentage of Americans over sixty years of age is increasing, we are ethnically more diverse, and the numbers of youth in the 14-24 age group is again increasing. We are a far richer society than ever before and the nature of our work has changed from blue to white collar. Our crime rates, although recently lower, are still embarrassingly high and will most likely rise again in the near future. Our behavior is more crude, harsh, and more self-centered than ever before. In general, we can say with some certainty that we are living in a different world with different law enforcement problems than we did fifty years ago. It is a world in which law enforcement has had to become more sophisticated, more diverse in services, and technologically proficient in order to deliver minimal services. In the 1950's, for example, police rarely entered a school building. Their presence was not required! Today, we have DARE programs, school safety officers, occasional drug sweeps, and undercover drug investigations involving students. These days it is not unusual for schools to call for assistance on matters involving violent student behavior including: homicide, rape, the sale of illicit drugs, and assault on fellow students or teachers. What can be said of the schools can also be said of the workplace. Clearly, it is not our father's world! It is not a world in which law enforcement organizations can effectively police without expanded resources and manpower. This is true not only in rural America, but also in our urban areas.

Fourth, in this age of ceaseless litigation, the actions of one poorly trained or misguided law enforcement officer can result in liability to the governing body for the action, or inaction, of one of its employees. Many towns, cities, and counties are targets of liability lawsuits toward police behavior because attorneys assume they can pay significant judgements. However, the supposedly deep pockets of most local governments just cannot afford to pay some of the judgements being awarded by the courts. For most small villages, towns, and cities a judgement over one million dollars for the improper actions of a police officer would be an extreme hardship, to the point of bankruptcy. Even the cost of defending allegations of officer misconduct would be a considerable burden. A regional police agency would not, per se, deter officer misconduct, however, it would spread any liability over a larger tax base and would ease the financial strain of hiring competent attorneys to defend the governing body.

Fifth, if consolidation of police agencies led to the creation of departments of approximately 1,500+ sworn officers it could, if properly managed, lead to a far more professional police profession nationwide. The opportunities for adequate salaries and benefits, increased levels of training, specialized services, opportunities for promotions, and the recruitment of highly qualified people would be considerably enhanced. It is not suggested that police officers presently employed in small departments are not dedicated, hard working, and competent individuals. They are competent and serve with distinction, however, the opportunities for professional growth are limited in small departments. Employed by a larger, regional force, these officers would be afforded more professional growth by exposure to better training programs, more promotional opportunities, and the opportunity to participate with special units in complex investigations. I would also suggest that the competitive atmosphere found in larger organizations for promotions, assignments, and personal reputations would lead to a higher level of professionalism on the part of all parties involved.

Sixth, regional police forces, theoretically, would have the resources to provide the region with better service in the areas of protecting citizens against criminal behaviors, quality investigation of criminal acts, faster response times, adequate manpower to handle most emergency situations, and a host of other non-traditional services. Properly deployed, a regional police force would provide each community with far more service/protection than they presently enjoy. This was the primary reason rural America consolidated, with great success, its country schools in the 1950's. It is also the reason the United Kingdom began to consolidate its constabularies in the 1940's and as of this date have reduced the number to just forty-three organizations. It is the reason Canadians have instituted the concept of regional forces in several of the provinces which are no longer provided local police services by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It could be argued that in both Canada and the United Kingdom regionalization has achieved a higher degree of professionalism among police officers and better police services for the communities they serve. Finally, those larger departments, which have offered nearby smaller communities' "contracts for services," have proven to be beneficial to all of the parties concerned.

Finally, the nature of crime is changing. Cybercrime, crimes which are international and interstate in nature, both domestic and international terrorism, and narcotics trafficking are examples of current criminal behavior which are usually beyond the scope and resources of small departments to investigate. This fact is not lost on those people who engage in illegal activities. This has led to the good intentioned federalization of criminal matters that traditionally have been handled by local or state agencies. In my judgement this is not a good trend, nor one which should be expanded. Asking, or allowing, the federal government to intervene in local matters only reduces the sovereign power of state and local governments. This is contrary to the founder's design of our form of government. By not being able to count on federal law enforcement agencies to bail out local law enforcement agencies it would force our local agencies to develop the necessary skills to do the job by themselves.

Will It Ever Happen?

The answer to the above question today is "maybe!" Several events would have to occur prior regionalization being seriously, and widely, considered. These events could be either a serious economic downturn or a significant increase in rural property taxes. Even under those circumstances it will take additional economic incentives for smaller communities to consider the idea of regional police services, such as state governments offering to share the initial costs of consolidation.

There is no evidence that the lack of regional police forces is causing any particular hardship on rural/suburban Americans. Present evidence suggests that our thousands of rural law enforcement agencies are doing an adequate job of protecting the public they serve. The argument that rural law enforcement could do a better job, while perhaps valid, applies equally to our larger urban law enforcement agencies as well. Today, the principle argument for considering consolidation is that it will raise the professional standards of all law enforcement agencies throughout the country. The fact that bigger is sometimes better certainly has been true in American industry and commerce, the medical profession, educational institutions, and a host of other institutions as well. Growth in organizations, up to a reasonable point, allows for innovation, specialization, and increased productivity. These are the same qualities needed to boost the professional standing of law enforcement in the United States.

Recommendations

All of the professional law enforcement organizations in the United States, as well as the public and politicians at the local and state level, should give consideration to placing the consolidation of small, rural law enforcement agencies into regional police forces on the agenda for serious debate. It is a matter that could be of great public interest, and eventually, in the best interest of our emerging profession.


The National Executive Institute Associates Leadership Bulletin editor is Edward J. Tully. He served with the FBI as a Special Agent from 1962 to 1993. He is presently the Executive Director of the Major City Chiefs. You can reach him via e-mail at tullye@aol.com or by writing to 308 Altoona Drive, Fredericksburg, Virginia 22401