Local governments continue to weather the fallout from the worst economic crisis in eighty years. Service reductions and layoffs have become common in an effort to balance budgets. These drastic measures have even reached the hallowed shores of public safety. Police and fire departments feel a greater push to do more with older technology, fewer resources and less people. In California, with realignment shifting physical and financial responsibility of prisoners from the state to the county and local level, the pressure on law enforcement has become particularly acute.
Since law enforcement services comprise one of the largest—and in many cases, the largest—percentage of budget expenditures for local government, and with continued cuts to police budgets a threat to community safety, municipal leaders may feel as though they have run out of options for balancing the two interests. Fortunately, other options exist in the form of consolidation and regionalization of police services.
Generally, “consolidation” refers to ways of reducing inefficiency within established agencies by identifying cost-ineffective operations and either restructuring the service area or eliminating the service area by contracting with another agency. Taking a look at an agency’s services, leaders should determine how much they cost and which ones maximize the money spent. Services that cannot run efficiently within the agency may not be necessary at all, or another agency may provide the same service at a lower cost. Typical examples include animal control, dispatch, non-sworn support services and SWAT teams.
Many agency-specific factors will impact whether an agency can efficiently provide any given service. However, a number of departments have found that neighboring agencies can provide the same service with the same (or better) level of quality and at a lower price. Often this is a function of some infrastructure advantage: City A has a state-of-the-art animal control facility constructed with grant funds and an existing contract with the local Humane Society for staffing. So City B contracts with City A to provide animal control services instead of operating its own program, which costs more than the total contract cost. Plus, City B’s animal control services receives the benefits of the modern facility and Humane Society affiliation versus continuing to make due with its aging infrastructure that it cannot afford to upgrade. City B may also receive some collateral benefit for using resources and facilities for purposes other than animal control. In turn, the community sees no negative impact as animal control services continue, and may even see a net benefit in quality of service because of the specialized training the Humane Society workers possess. In the end, City B has consolidated its animal control services with City A.
Current Regionalized Cooperation
Though similar in terms of realized cost savings, “regionalization” generally refers to two or more agencies working together for mutual benefit in providing a service to a larger population or community, typically across a larger geographical area. For example, many law enforcement agencies take part in regional task forces for specific types of crime intervention and prevention, like gang activities, drugs or anti-terrorism. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) outlining the operation of the task force, delineating operational responsibilities and apportioning asset forfeiture proceeds typically suffices as a governing document. At that point, each participating agency can leverage additional assets from other participating agencies to affect a broader service area, with little additional cost, as opposed to operating solely with home agency assets across a smaller area. Thus, the participating agencies have regionalized their crime prevention efforts in this way.
Taking the regionalization concept further than the provision of a specific service, some communities may find a powerful tool in working the balance between effective community policing and decreasing budget pressure by taking part in a regionalized police department with neighboring communities. One law enforcement agency for multiple municipalities falls much farther along the regionalized spectrum than simple MOUs. Regionalized police forces have drawn speculation, concern and outright hostility for decades, despite some successful implementations in a variety of jurisdictions. However, because of the current state of municipal budgets, regionalized policing has stepped out of the shadows as a viable alternative to the two dominate ways of providing police services: supporting one’s own agency, or contracting with another, larger agency—usually the County Sheriff’s Department.
Future Regionalization: Law Enforcement Joint Powers Authority
For geographically adjacent, demographically similar communities with relative population parity, one regional police agency may provide the best option for providing traditional or core law enforcement services via a joint powers authority. Understanding how this can work requires an understanding of the costs and benefits of the two primary law enforcement service models.
Supporting a police department takes significant resources in terms of money, facilities and personnel. Beyond the basics of materiel and people, local governments bear additional liability risks due to the nature and unique role of law enforcement in the community. Civil lawsuits often target police officers for carrying out their typical duties, a unique burden for public employees. The local government also bears additional risk for worker compensation claims due to the physical nature of law enforcement demands. This, in turn, further increases the proportionate share of law enforcement requirements in a budget, beyond standard line times like patrol vehicles, ammunition and retirement benefits.
However, significant benefits result from supporting a local police agency. Home departments can best implement community-based policing practices, which social science research has shown to have the greatest impact on reducing and preventing crime. Local departments have direct accountability to the community and elected officials. Stability in staffing enables law enforcement to form long-term partnerships with residents and business community members, which can have a direct impact on crime rate reduction. Community pride coalesces around local providers of public safety and defenders of the common good.
Consequences of Contracting Out Police Services
Contracting out police services to another agency typically nets substantial cost benefits as the larger agency bears most of the cost burdens. The primary outlay in a contract situation comes in the form of the contract cost. A local government does not have to worry about facilities, beyond basic office space needs for any peace officers present in the civic center. Personnel costs are covered by the contract agency, including workers compensation, liability insurance and retirement benefits. Physical assets typically are provided by the contract as well. Since the service is based upon a contract, the locality can count on certain costs from year to year, leading to budget predictability.
A service contract has measurable consequences beyond finances, however. A contract agency may not have the ability or resources to implement community-based policing models to the same extent and with the same effectiveness as a local agency. In turn, this can degrade crime prevention and reduction. Depending upon the size and regular service area for the contracting agency, response times may vary widely. Officers assigned by contract ultimately report to superiors outside of the locality they support and often only serve for established periods of time before rotating to positions elsewhere. This directly impacts community involvement and development of institutional knowledge. In the end, a local community is a customer with limited ability to control how they receive the service they have purchased.
A regional police agency model, using a joint powers authority (JPA), incorporates most of the positive operational aspects of a self-supported police model with a lower overall cost, like a contract model. A JPA police force can take advantage of community-based policing practices; benefits from stability in membership, and can have a more positive community image. A JPA model keeps the control closer to the communities served, rather than having decision makers reside beyond the influence of local voters. Indeed, elected officials from each community—and even community members at large—could serve on the board of the JPA, providing transparency and accountability.
Critically, the JPA model allows member governments to off-load portions of the financial cost to the JPA—which is a separate, legal entity—including daily operations, insurance and retirement costs. A JPA can take advantage of economies of scale, further lowering costs. Joint agencies can own and sell property, and obtain insurance independent of the empowering localities. State and federal agencies charged with disbursing law enforcement grants may view awards to a JPA as a chance to effect change across a larger area without diminishing the grant award. In short, a JPA model represents the best of both worlds, by maximizing positive operational and control aspects from a home agency model, and lower financial outlays typically seen with contract models.
Moving forward, the task of providing and paying for local law enforcement services will only become more difficult. Local government leaders may feel as though they have run out of options. However, other options do exist, all of which offer flexibility, cost savings and accountability. Consolidation and regionalization of law enforcement services offer cooperative solutions to relieving budget pressures while maintaining public safety.
G. Ross Trindle, III is an attorney at Best Best & Krieger LLP who focuses on police litigation and other law enforcement matters. A member of the firm’s municipal law group, he serves as deputy city attorney for the cities of Arcadia, Azusa, Claremont, Clearlake, Colton, Corona, Covina, Mammoth Lakes, San Jacinto and Shafter, handling Pitchess motions, sex offender registration issues, law enforcement policy, and state and federal civil rights litigation. He can be reached at Ross.Trindle@BBKlaw.com.