Senator Judy Schwank hosted a Town Hall meeting at Brandywine Heights Middle School on May 17 to discuss regionalizing police departments and Governor Tom Wolf’s proposal to charge municipalities for contracting with State Police.
Wolf proposes that municipalities without their own police department who contract with State Police would be charged $25 per person to help fund State Police.
Currently, the State Police is funded out of the Highway Fund. About $800 million out of expenses like license fees and the gas tax goes towards the State Police. The Highway Fund exists primarily for safety and construction purposes.
Schwank opened the meeting by saying that Wolf’s proposal led her to begin to question how legislators should look at public safety within the Commonwealth, where the money should come from and the general level of safety in the Commonwealth.
She then turned the floor over to the featured speaker, local government policy manager at the Governor’s Center for Local Government Services, Ron Stern, who has 20 years experience in law enforcement. He began to work with the state after his retirement from law enforcement, when former Governor Tom Ridge combined two departments to form the Department of Community and Economic Development, within which the Governor’s Center for Local Government Services was formed.
“It’s a real passion for me because I understand the way that our Commonwealth is set up with all the municipalities that we have and we need to do something better to provide public safety,” said Stern, who was hired to work with police issues for the center.
The topic of Stern’s discussion was regionalization of police departments.
According to Stern, there are 2,560 municipalities in Pennsylvania, with only 966 municipal-owned police departments. There are 201 municipalities who contract their police coverage from other municipalities. There are 37 regional police departments formed by 121 municipalities to provide police protection.
Stern said that the Pa. State Police covers 1,272 municipalities.
Thirty one percent of the state’s municipalities employ only full-time officers, 12 percent employ only part-time officers and 57 percent employ both full-time and part-time officers. There are 18,382 full-time officers and 597 of these are regional officers. There are 1,986 part-time officers with 130 of them being employed regionally.
According to Stern, there is a cap on the number of officers that the state is allowed to employ; the number is just under 5,000.
He shared that each municipality is recommended to have at least 10 full-time officers, if an agency has less than that, it should consider consolidation, or regional policing, to provide the most efficiency and effectiveness.
Of the full-time departments in Pennsylvania, 37 percent have less than 10 officers, 94 percent of the part-time departments have less than 10 officers, 83 percent of the both full and part-time departments have less than 10 officers and 19 percent of the regional departments have less than 10 officers.
Stern discussed the pros and cons of the regionalization of police departments.
With regionalization, there is cost distribution where everyone involved shares the costs, he said.
Stern believes that for every four employees, there should be one supervisor; he said consolidation allows for that type of supervision for better management and supervision.
He said regionalized departments find themselves with improved training; with more officers, the more possible it becomes for some to engage in training while others remain on the streets.
“I couldn’t afford to send some of my officers to training, I needed them on the street,” said Stern. “I couldn’t always send my officers to training, I did the mandatory stuff, but I would have loved to have sent more of my guys to accident reconstruction or photography class, something like that would help improve the services.”
With regionalization there is also enhanced career opportunities, with supervision and a command structure, where non-consolidated departments often house only a chief and patrol officers, which can take away incentive, Stern said. There is also a full range of police services, like accident reconstruction and crime scene analysis, and consistent enforcement and improved coverage and distribution, he said.
Stern also recognized the cons, such as the loss of local control, services and citizen contact. He said that all municipalities have a representative in a regionalized police situation, protecting the local voice.
On the issue of loss of citizen contact, he said, “I think people tend to complain that they don’t see their police anymore and I really thought about this years ago. Why do we keep getting this complaint?”
Stern said this complaint stems from the societal changes that have occurred where families are often on the go so frequently that they don’t see patrol cars driving around.
In the end, regionalization depends on individual municipalities and their unique needs. He conducts Regional Police Feasibility Studies where he examines demographics, fiscal data, budget, costs and needs. He then makes recommendations to the municipality.
“Even though this is what I do for the center, and I am very passionate about regional policing, I have made recommendations that it’s not in the best interest of some municipalities for a number of reasons. But typically they all boil down to one area, politics,” said Stern. “If you don’t have that good-working relationship, it’s not going to work.”
He said that he is working on about eight police department mergers at this time.
Schwank and Stern opened the floor to public comments.
The first to speak was a Topton resident of 30 years who recalls a municipal police department with less than 10 officers, which he thought worked just fine. After the department regionalized he recalls walking his dog late at night and becoming acquainted with patrolling officers. The regionalized department disbanded and the state police now patrol his area. After having initial concerns, he is pleased at what the state police have accomplished.
Another resident said that state police took more than 45 minutes to arrive on scene at an incident in Maxatawny Township. He claimed that the more areas the state police cover, there will always be a municipality that suffers.
Many people in attendance recognized that Kutztown or Fleetwood could patrol the Topton area to help the State Police.
If Gov. Wolf’s legislature passes, the $25 per person would not increase the number of state police in an area. Some in attendance argued that if an area is paying more, they should be receiving increased services.
There are concerns that this fee could rise every few years. Schwank agreed that the legislature would need to be looked at closely.
“I am very happy, always, to go out and speak with constituents,” said Schwank. “This is really one of the most important things that I do, to get feedback from people. And it couldn’t be a more important time to get feedback because we’re just about ready to go back to Harrisburg to focus totally on the budget and get something done that meets the needs of the state of Pennsylvania.”