Police Fragmentation: A Discussion on Consolidation

Photo Credit: Natalia Holliday

By Kyle Steenland, Feature Editor

It’s no secret that Pennsylvania’s police department structure is one of the most fragmented in the country. Fragmented systems – meaning a structure of police departments without any central governing agency – result from municipalities, counties, and communities creating their own departments to provide for local law enforcement.[1] Our Commonwealth hosts over 1,000 different local law enforcement agencies, the second-most after Texas.[2] Allegheny County alone possesses nearly 120 different municipal police departments.[3] for an area under 750 square miles.[4]

Fragmentation leaves departments with inadequate funding and creates awkward disparities that reach nearly all aspects of policing: from hiring and training to cross-department interactions, all the way to civilian interaction and record keeping.[5] These funding issues undermine effective policing, leaving communities without adequate protection from law enforcement.

For instance, the financial burden of supporting local departments rests on resident taxpayers, resulting in significant pay imbalances between officers of wealthy suburbs and officers in middle-class or poorer communities.[6] Pittsburgh is a prime example. City police officers earn less in starting salaries, maximum salaries, and benefits than their wealthier suburban counterparts.[7] The pay disparity is unfair to both the officers and the residents, as the most qualified candidates may not be enticed to work for the neighborhoods that most need their services. Local police departments then must choose between the lesser of two evils: putting a less-than-qualified officer on the street or putting no officer out there at all. The issues are further exacerbated by the superior equipment and training available to the wealthier localities.

Culturally, fragmented policing structures create different paradigms for citizen-law enforcement encounters. Different priorities for law enforcement, different emphasis on certain crimes, and other cross-agency irregularities lead to uncertainty and asymmetry in the actual enforcement of laws. Part of the reason laws are codified is to provide uniform information and enforcement measures, and so society is aware of what the rules are. Inconsistent enforcement erodes these principles and undermines the codification of our laws.

The predicament begs the question of how taxpayer dollars can be better utilized in offering law enforcement services for problems that ubiquitously plague communities. A consolidated structure has been contemplated in the law enforcement community as potentially providing the much-needed uniformity.[8]

Although the quality of policing should not be dictated by cost, the reality is, of course, a bit different. Yet at its core, equally-qualified law enforcement should be available to all. Given the realities, consolidation is a means of achieving cost-efficiency to improve the quality of law enforcement across the board.

“Consolidation” does not necessarily mean a full-scale merger resulting in a complete loss of a department’s autonomy. The International Association of Chiefs of Police outlined several methods that involve varying degrees of consolidation.[9] They range from “functional” consolidation, where two or more agencies combine certain functional units like police dispatch or record keeping, to “regional mergers,” where several agencies come together and delineate jurisdictional lines by geographic area.[10] All methods emphasize economical savings and ultimately aim to reduce the inefficiencies and difficulties that plague a fragmented system.

A unified structure poses other benefits, such as consistent training and protocols for policing activities, pooling of resources, and the elimination of duplicative operational and administrative costs.[11] The pooling of resources is particularly effective where a unified police department can more easily purchase supplies in bulk at a greater discount. Additionally, pooling resources such as surveillance methodology and equipment allows the police to more readily share offender data, which would lead to better control over offenders.[12]

As a matter of principle, revenue generation is the ugly side of policing. It undermines the legitimacy of the profession,[13]  which endangers the lives of those involves[14]. Unfortunately, generating revenue is often a mission thrust upon police due to the economic blight afflicting many communities, forcing a predatory style of policing.

In some St. Louis communities, predatory policing became so pervasive that protective legislation known as “Macks Creek” laws were enacted limiting the amount of operating revenue a municipality could collect from law enforcement fines and fees.[15] A consolidated policing structure can alleviate these practices by eliminating overlapping services and redundant costs. A Police Executive Research Forum study for Pennsylvania’s own Dauphin County suggested that reorganizing police departments could save between $675,000 to over $18 million.[16] Such savings would significantly lighten the burdens on municipalities and curb their desire to emphasize the revenue generating side of policing.

Although consolidating police departments poses many benefits, it is not without its detriments. A predominant theory of contemporary policing is “community policing,” and part of its success relies on the local community’s ties, trust, and cooperation with their respective police department. Local departments may find their “identities” subsumed by the larger, newly created department, which could diminish – or even completely eliminate – the trust and legitimacy citizens once imbued upon their regional law enforcement.

Consolidation could also result in a loss of local autonomy over how the community wants to be policed, and it can erode the community values instilled and enforced by the local police departments. Local departments have evolved in tandem with the unique needs of their respective communities, as reflected by the policing of issues salient to a particular community. A consolidated unit may have overarching policing goals that do not align with the local community’s.

Additionally as a practical matter, job cuts would be inevitable, particularly where “functional” consolidation saves on staff by reducing the number of people performing similar services across departments.

There are also upfront costs of consolidating necessary to establish uniformity. In a merger of Kentucky police departments, nearly $85 million was spent on radios alone to ensure the police department could operate cohesively.[17] Then there are the costs of new uniforms, vehicles, training manuals, and endless other supplies and equipment, along with the costs of deciding the details of each.[18]

A fragmented police system is problematic to say the least. Consolidation is one solution that appeared to have been successful in some jurisdictions. However, it is a feat easier said than done. Proper implementation requires the coordination of hundreds of people at all levels of society. But for the betterment of law enforcement, citizens, and society, it may be an effort worth undertaking.




[1] Encyclopedia Britannica, Decentralized police organizations, (last accessed December 8, 2018) https://www.britannica.com/topic/police/Decentralized-police-organizations

[2] Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, NCJ 233982, Census Of State And Local Law Enforcement Agencies, 15 (2011), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/csllea08.pdf

[3] Renaud, Lauren, The Overlapping Police Departments in Allegheny County, (last accessed December 8, 2018) http://www.laurenrenaud.com/blog/2016/6/28/the-overlapping-police-departments-of-allegheny-county

[4] United States Census Bureau, QuickFacts Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, (last accessed December 8, 2018) https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/alleghenycountypennsylvania

[5] Police Executive Research Forum, Overcoming the Challenges and Creating a Regional Approach to Policing in St. Louis City and County, 3, 15 (April 30, 2015), https://www.bettertogetherstl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/PERF-Report-Overcoming-the-Challenges.pdf

[6] Bob Bauder, How do Pittsburgh police salaries stack up to suburban departments?, TribLive (Feb. 16, 2018 5:19 p.m.), https://triblive.com/local/allegheny/13313811-74/how-do-pittsburgh-police-salaries-stack-up-to-suburban-departments

[7] Bob Bauder, How do Pittsburgh police salaries stack up to suburban departments?, TribLive (Feb. 16, 2018 5:19 p.m.), https://triblive.com/local/allegheny/13313811-74/how-do-pittsburgh-police-salaries-stack-up-to-suburban-departments

[8] Consolidating Police Services An IACP Planning Approach, International Association Of Chiefs Of Police, 1-2 (May 2003) https://it.ojp.gov/documents/IACP_Consolidating_Police_Services.pdf

[9]  Id.

[10] Id.

[11] New York Department of State, Cost Reduction Efforts for Local Governments Police Services, 1 https://www.ny.gov/sites/ny.gov/files/atoms/files/SharedServices_BestPractices_Police.pdf

[12] Police Executive Research Forum, Overcoming the Challenges and Creating a Regional Approach to Policing in St. Louis City and County, 57 (April 30, 2015), https://www.bettertogetherstl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/PERF-Report-Overcoming-the-Challenges.pdf

[13] Police Executive Research Forum, Overcoming the Challenges and Creating a Regional Approach to Policing in St. Louis City and County, 40 (April 30, 2015) https://www.policeforum.org/assets/stlouis.pdf, 40

[14] Urban Institute, Policing 2016 To Deliver Safety, Police Need Legitimacy and Accountability, 6 (November 2015), https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/72951/2000511-Policing-2016-To-Deliver-Safety-Police-Need-Legitimacy-and-Accountability.pdf

[15] Police Executive Research Forum, Overcoming the Challenges and Creating a Regional Approach to Policing in St. Louis City and County, 37 (April 30, 2015), https://www.bettertogetherstl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/PERF-Report-Overcoming-the-Challenges.pdf

[16] Mary Velan, Studies Suggest Police Regionalization Key to Cost Savings, EfficientGov (Oct. 20, 2015), https://efficientgov.com/blog/2015/10/20/studies-suggest-police-regionalization-key-to-cost-savings

[17] Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Police consolidation, regionalization, and shared services: options, considerations, and lessons from research and practice, 5 (Feb. 2012), https://ric-zai-inc.com/Publications/cops-w0641-pub.pdf

[18] Consolidating Police Services, supra note 3.

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