Efficiency, savings drive police mergers, but opponents’ concerns include lack of funding
Early last month, just one week after the East Pittsburgh police force disbanded, the borough’s council president convened nine nearby municipalities to discuss regionalizing the police departments that dot the Mon Valley.
East Pittsburgh’s police department had been under a microscope since one of its officers fatally shot an unarmed 17-year-old, Antwon Rose II, in June. Shortly after, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. expressed concern over the “lack of policies and procedures” in place at the department. The borough’s hopes to have Allegheny County police patrol its streets fell through in September for financial reasons, and Pennsylvania State Police took over patrol duty on Dec. 1.
“We’re trying to do the best for our residents in the borough of East Pittsburgh, and merging with a community that borders us would probably be the best way to start,” said Dennis Simon, the council president.
The situation highlights a broader issue countywide that members of law enforcement, local elected officials and grassroots advocates see: inefficiency. More than 100 disparate municipal police departments operate within the 745 square miles of Allegheny County.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has been in informal talks with several officials, including Mr. Simon, in the eastern suburbs about police regionalization, but nothing has materialized.
“I’d like to see some of these smaller municipalities that don’t have the resources really start to figure out a way [to] consolidate with each other,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “It’s really a local decision.”
Without being approached by the municipality directly and formalizing a financial agreement, the county cannot extend police coverage.
Proponents, like Mr. Fitzgerald, see consolidation as a path to more efficient, consistent policing.
But opponents of consolidation point to concerns over lack of tax base to support an adequate regional force, a loss of community policing and identity, difficult police contract negotiations and political considerations.
Some of the communities that met — Braddock, Braddock Hills, North Braddock, North Versailles, Rankin, Turtle Creek and Whitaker — have some of the highest 911 call volumes and lowest officer salaries.
“We’re losing our police officers to other communities that provide full-time work, with medical benefits and vacation and pension. It’s a constant, constant turnover,” North Braddock Mayor Tom Whyel said.
The borough, which borders East Pittsburgh, employs one full-time chief, who’s currently on disability, and 10 part-time officers who start at $13.25 an hour — and who generally average 32 hours a week. The eight officers who were employed by East Pittsburgh started at $15.60 an hour.
In Allegheny County, two regions’ police forces have consolidated — the Northern Regional Police Department covers four municipalities; the Ohio Township Police patrols seven neighboring communities.
Other configurations include smaller municipalities that have contracted with larger nearby communities for policing services. Carnegie has patrolled Pennsbury Village since 1979; Scott has patrolled Rossyln Farms since its police department disbanded in 2012. Both chiefs estimate that they receive between 120 and 180 calls per year from the two smaller residential communities. Similarly, McKeesport patrols Dravosburg; Forest Hills covers Chalfant; Elizabeth Borough patrols West Elizabeth.
Allegheny County police departments vary widely in both workload and resources.
**East Pittsburgh P.D. was disbanded on December 1, 2018. Pennsylvania State Police have taken over policing the borough.
Sources: Allegheny County, interviews with police chiefs, public records, Census Bureau.
*FBI Unified Crime Reporting Part 1 Crimes: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.
**East Pittsburgh P.D. was disbanded on December 1, 2018. Pennsylvania State Police have taken over policing the borough.
“A lot of these jurisdictions had their own departments. Quite typically, the end story is municipalities can’t afford to keep a full-time police department. It’s very expensive,” Ohio police Chief Joseph Hanny said.
Elected officials in Neville have reported savings since contracting with Ohio in early 2006. Prior to the contract, the township spent “in the neighborhood of $800,000” annually on public safety, said Rick Rutter, one of the township’s five commissioners.
Neville’s current $360,000 contract terms include emergency-call response, 24/7 coverage by an Ohio patrol car as well as foot patrols and backup for fire emergencies.
The township used the three-quarters of the savings to lower its millage rate for residents by 34 percent, Mr. Rutter said. The rest has gone into paving and purchasing new public works equipment.
“[The contract] has been going on for 12 years now successfully. I sometimes don’t understand why other communities don’t look at it, other than the fact that maybe they are afraid of the repercussions from residents,” Mr. Rutter said. “I also don’t know their financial situations. Maybe there’s no savings for them.”
Kevin Yurkovich, council president for Emsworth, said unloading retirement costs has been a significant savings since entering into its contract with Ohio in 1993.
“[Policing] was like between 80 and 90 percent of the Emsworth budget, depending on the year,” he said. “When you get up there and you have more and more retirees, that’s where the problem was: paying pensions for retired officers.”
The borough’s current contract with Ohio is $247,000.
In addition to Neville and Emsworth, Ohio, with its 31 personnel, holds policing contracts with Aleppo, Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Kilbuck and Sewickley Hills.
Several elected officials who contract with Ohio said they haven’t felt a loss of community identity — an oft-cited argument against police consolidation.
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“I remember when they were merging, there was definitely some hesitation about losing identity and personal security,” Ben Avon Council President Jennifer Bett said. “But I think it’s been a win for everybody. We have the resources of a larger police force in a small borough.”
Chief Hanny regularly attends council meetings and emergency calls are answered “within a minute or two,” Ms. Bett said.
Just this year, the municipalities in the Fox Chapel School District, including Sharpsburg and Aspinwall, began talks of consolidation.
According to figures in a 2013 report to the state Legislature on police consolidation, municipalities across Pennsylvania (excluding Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) spent $1.3 billion on police in 2012.
The report broke down the policing arrangements in place at the time in Pennsylvania’s 2,560 municipalities, finding a mishmash: 986 stand-alone municipal departments, 34 regional departments including 102 municipalities, and 244 municipalities contracting with a neighbor or a regional department. The state police provided either full-time or part-time coverage to nearly two-thirds of municipalities, including hundreds that also relied partly on one of the other arrangements.
Advocates of consolidation say it would save money that could be better spent.
“When we have several small departments in one geographic location that’s not very large, that’s a waste of resources,” said Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, which called for consolidation after the Rose teen was killed in East Pittsburgh. “We could pay officers more or reallocate those dollars to the communities. That money could be used to prevent crime on the front end.”
According to the most recent figures available, East Pittsburgh budgeted $416,000 on policing in 2018. Policing budgets for the surrounding municipalities of North Braddock, Braddock and Turtle Creek totaled $560,000, $438,147 and $632,000, respectively.
Typically, departments don’t like to give up any authority or sovereignty in making decisions, said Jonathan Ingram, senior associate with the Ohio-based Novak Consulting Group, which focuses on local government efficiency.
“It’s a community dynamics and community identity question. We all want our own police department, because we want to be fully in charge and responsible for how individuals are policed in our communities. It’s a neighborhood dynamic that is very difficult to overcome: political and community dynamic that tends to be the major impediment,” he said.
In the case of Northern Regional, the county’s only regionalized department, Pine created a police force with Marshall and Bradford Woods in 1969.
At the time, Pine had a two-officer force, Bradford Woods was policed by a single constable, and Marshall relied on state police.
The Pine-Marshall-Bradford Woods Police Department functioned until 2006, when Richland’s 10-person force joined to create the Northern Regional Police Department. The merged department covers the four municipalities across 52 square miles.
“Nobody loses their identity in a regionalization,” Northern Regional Chief Robert Amann said, pointing to his patch, which names all four municipalities. “But the mayor and some of the small councils will lose their authority.”
In the 2013 state study, a survey of elected officials revealed concern about lack of control. Difficulty in developing inter-municipal police contracts ranked highest among significant issues about police consolidation.
When Richland’s department joined the others, Chief Amann brought in all of their officers and a secretary, several police cars and various other equipment.
They merged the two pension plans, renegotiated details like retirement age and bumped up the Richland officers’ salaries to match that of their colleagues.
“You can fight this,” Chief Amann said. “I mean, you can throw all sorts of stuff on the table. What it’s going to take is for the leaders of this community to say, ‘We’re going to do this.’ The leaders, they’ve got to lead.”
The state offers up to $150,000 in grant money over a three-year period to assist with regionalization efforts.
Southwest of Allegheny County, the Charleroi Regional Police Department used $50,000 in state grant money between 2011 and 2014 to establish its regional force for three communities in Washington County.
One indicator of success, experts say, is whether the regionalizing communities share similar demographics and crime rates.
“Each community will have a say. And they’ll have a say regardless of share of workload and share of financial contribution,” Mr. Ingram, the consultant, said.
Sometimes it doesn’t work.
In 2015, Farrell left the Southwest Mercer County Regional Police Department, under which four municipalities joined.
“What was happening was the rifts. One community was a rural community and was claiming all their money went to fight all the crime in Farrell. And Farrell was like we’re spending $50,000 in fuel to patrol all your land out there,” Farrell manager Michael Ceci said.
The Northern Regional and Ohio Township coverage areas are unlikely to have such disagreements. They encompass 90 percent white, high median-income communities. They also receive significantly fewer 911 phone calls per capita than the eastern suburbs that are discussing the possibility of consolidation.
While not sprawling suburbs with large tax bases, Allegheny County’s eastern suburbs have something in common, according to municipal officials who are entertaining the idea of consolidation.
“We feel, especially of the poorer towns throughout the valley, we’re all the same boat,” East Pittsburgh’s Mr. Simon said. “We used to rely on U.S. Steel and Westinghouse, and a lot of our people have passed away or moved away. Our budgets are a lot less, and we have to deal with what we have to deal with.”
Staff writer Shelly Bradbury contributed. Ashley Murray: 412-263-1750, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Ashley__Murray.