Guest Column by Sen. Judy Schwank: How to Pay for Police Protection When Your Community Eliminates its Police Force

Submitted photo: Judy Schwank has announced her intention to run for reelection.

Like most places in Pennsylvania, Berks County is feeling the pinch of a bad economy. Reading’s economic struggles remain even though we have made great strides by working together on public safety and economic development. Unemployment continues to be too high everywhere. Crime is also rising in our hometowns.

Not surprisingly, the rise in crime is happening as our smaller communities are folding their police departments because they can no longer afford to uniform law enforcers. Instead of providing local police patrols, places like Maxatawny, Longswamp and my township, Ruscombmanor, are turning to the Pennsylvania State Police to provide coverage.

Fewer police departments mean fewer full-time police officers, limited crime prevention efforts, and a less-than-usual response to crime of all sorts. That’s an invitation for crooks.

Using state police to protect us is not a bad way to go if you don’t consider how much more it costs state police every time a municipality turns to it for help.

I proposed a bill a few weeks ago that would make the cost of replacing local police departments with state police troopers more equitable.

Senate Bill 841 is my opening bid to balance the law enforcement needs of financially strapped communities with the dramatically rising costs that are draining the Pennsylvania State Police budget.

If approved – and it needs to be approved and signed into law by the governor – SB841 would require municipalities with populations of at least 5,000 to use state-provided motor license revenue equal to the cost of state police coverage. This means that those communities that rely on the state for police services would receive less road improvement funding, but it means communities will be safer because they will get quality law enforcement.

I’ve heard some criticism that the population minimum was an attempt by me to keep Ruscombmanor Township from having to pay out a portion of its motor license fund to pay for state police protection. That’s not what I was thinking, at all. I would love it if Ruscombmanor Township joined forces with Oley or Fleetwood to form a regional police department or even contracted with these municipalities for police coverage.

In fact, larger communities that could pay their fair share for state police protection, if they are using troopers to patrol their streets, should. Smaller, more rural communities that would be hard-pressed to pay for state police coverage would be exempt from my bill.

That’s the bottom line of my legislation.

Most people think municipalities should pay for state police coverage if they use it, but it seems not as many people agree with that when it comes to their own communities. The same can be said for regional police forces.

I would walk away from this bill if more of our communities banded together to brand themselves with unique, strategic and more cost-effective policing practices. On the other hand, my bill would encourage more regional police departments.

There are a multitude of studies supporting regional policing.

A 2010 study by the Pennsylvania Economy League and the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development concluded that “regional police forces have the quantity and quality of officers to ensure coverage in the event of a series of issues occurring simultaneously. Full-time officers have more time for investigation and training, therefore, regional police forces have the ability to spend more time investigating crimes that lead to more arrests.”

Berks County is like York County, based on population. However, 35 percent of all of York County’s police forces were regional in 2006 while just 6 percent were regional in Berks County, according to the study. The combined cost for all York County police coverage that year was $39.1 million; in Berks County it was $56.5 million.

Because more York County police forces had regionalized, those departments plus the stand-alone police forces were able to provide full-time officers nearly ‘round the clock.

Regionalizing police departments is not as simple as snapping your fingers. There are significant hurdles to clear, including coordinating wages, benefits and working conditions. But these are things that can and must happen. The Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs agrees with me.

“The association supports the removal of any regulatory or legislative barriers to the creation of regional police departments,” PSAB said in its 2012 Municipal Policy Statement.

The association also agrees that municipalities that do use state police to replace their police departments should also pay.

“It is the association’s position that large communities over 5,000 population that rely on the State Police for police services should be charged a fee on a per capita basis,” its policy statement reads.

In the long run, using state police to provide local law enforcement hits everyone’s bottom line; even the taxpayers who live in the communities that no longer have their own force. It’s increasingly expensive and unreasonable. Change is needed.

Senate Bill 841 would give state police the money it needs to ensure our protection. It would also free up dollars to help the state better maintain its roads and bridges.

Sen. Judy Schwank, 11th Senatorial District

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