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Police Consolidation: A New Era to Law Enforcement

By Manfred F. Meine and Thomas P. Dunn

policePolice effectiveness in general, and response capability in particular, continue to be among the generic components in the review of any emergency management program. In a 2011 study of police consolidation in California, Peter J. Nelligan and William Bourns introduced the compelling observation that police consolidation could have the potential to improve homeland security, an area of critical importance in the current environment for police first responders. In addition, their study also found potential cost savings and improved effectiveness resulting from consolidation.

Regrettably however, although their intriguing observation about homeland security appears to have been an original insight, their latter findings were not new. Although supportive of the conclusions of previous studies, the findings do not reflect a significant movement toward police consolidation in the United States, about which an almost century-long discussion has been co-opted and dominated by the status quo orientation that has come to typify local politics.

Indeed, it has now been more than 80 years since the 1931 Wickersham Commission documented and encouraged the pursuit of improvements in police effectiveness that were posited to result from the consolidation of police services. And it has been more than 35 years since Harry Pachon and Nicholas Lovrich published the results of their extensive examination of police consolidations nation-wide in Public Administration Review in 1977. This included their tentative support for the pro-consolidation argument. With the typically tepid responses to the findings of Presidential Commissions, Pachon and Lovrich’s conclusion that nothing much had changed must surely come as no surprise. Yet, in an environment where the effectiveness of the police emergency response to events like the Boston Marathon attack is arguably more important than ever, it seems clear that taking action long overdue is certainly warranted.

In the pragmatic tradition of the Wickersham Commission, vis-à-vis the more academically oriented focus of Pachon and Lovrich, their conclusions have garnered recent support from Jeremy Wilson and Clifford Grammich in a 2012 police consolidation article. In reviewing some of the most relevant contemporary literature on the issue, the same conclusion arises, not surprisingly, that nothing much has changed.  What was surprising, however, was the realization that the effects of police consolidation on the performance of law enforcement personnel in their capacity as first responders. This includes the ancillary, but critical, fiscal implications that had not been, nor were they now the subject of systematic scrutiny designed to resolve the issue of whether police consolidation would serve to improve police performance in the area of emergency management.

With the critical need to reduce policing costs in both the current fiscal environment, and in the long term, now is the opportune time to embrace police consolidation with a vigorous, multi-faceted research agenda. Plans should be designed to provide the long overdue resolution to the questions of politics, i.e. local control versus the most effective policing—the centerpiece of that agenda being a carefully designed meta-analysis.

Although each effort toward police consolidation has some unique aspects, most are conducted within the decentralized framework of the American system of law enforcement.  There is little doubt about the complex and arguably problematic nature of America’s decentralized policing system. It needs only to be pointed out that even within the law enforcement community there is a lack of certainty as to the actual number of local police agencies in the United States. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Bureau of Justice Statistics published reports that estimate between 12,000 to 18,000.  Although the ambiguity concerning the actual number of police agencies is surprising, much less so is the arguably dysfunctional interagency communication and jurisdictional issues that interfere with the effectiveness of American law enforcement.

The current 49 percent clearance rate of the eight index crimes in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports (UCR’s), combined with an even more disturbing decline in the clearance rate for the most serious crimes (e.g. murder, manslaughter) from 82 percent in 1971 to the current 63.8 percent (UCR’s, 1971; 2011), would seem to provide a compelling reason to continue exploring the potential efficiency advantages of police consolidation while also addressing the contemporary funding concerns.

A Call for an End Game

The resolution of an issue that so obviously illustrates the historic duality of focus in public administration on public sector entities, characterized by both academic interest and operational applications should no longer be impeded by the inaction of the past 80 years. To the contrary, with the escalating importance of fiscal imperatives providing an unavoidable impetus, the time for designing and implementing a viable end game via an aggressive research agenda is clearly at hand.

While we believe the optimum research strategy should ultimately incorporate a variety of social science research techniques, we also believe that after 80 years of sporadic and inconclusive activity, the first step should be a rigorous attempt to identify, evaluate and codify as much of the reliable information on police consolidation as possible. To that end, a carefully designed meta-analysis would seem to be the obvious choice. One of the crucial keys to the success and subsequent impact of any meta-analysis is the precise formulation of its focus. We believe the following to be the appropriate research questions for the initial framing of the proposed research:

1)      What are the specific police consolidation techniques (e.g., contracting for police services) that have been proposed?

2)       Which, if any, of those techniques have been posited as significant contributors to potential increases in police effectiveness in the arena of emergency management in general and in their capabilities as first responders in particular?

3)      Have any of the successfully implemented police consolidations included an emergency management component; and, if so, have the subsequent evaluations of that component been favorable or unfavorable?

While the conduct of any meta-analysis is inherently challenging, the proposed design is especially so in light of the 2009 findings by Marc Holzer of the questionable reliability of the data generated by some of the previous police consolidation studies. However, keeping Holzer’s cautionary observations in mind could serve to intensify the scrutiny in selecting only the most reliable studies to be included in the proposed police consolidation research. As such, actually serve to enhance the all-important credibility of its findings. 

Should the results of the proposed research produce additional support for the position that the advantages of police consolidation clearly outweigh the arguments for maintaining local political control, the time will have finally arrived for not only claiming that the police consolidation controversy has been temporarily resolved in the abstract, but that there no longer exists any legitimate reasons to further delay the promotion of police consolidation in communities nation-wide.

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