Police service is often the most cherished and visible municipal service—and inevitably one of the costliest. When it comes to balancing local government costs and quality of life, law enforcement increasingly is part of the public conversation. Too often, the immediate reflex is to equate cost savings in law enforcement with compromising public safety. That need not be the case.
A dichotomy drives the challenge
First, there’s emotion involved. We like the sense of security that comes with knowing an officer is patrolling our street. Whether responding to emergencies and criminal activity or getting to know residents on a first-name basis, police form bonds and fill roles that many residents consider vital for their community. Recently I learned some youths in my own neighborhood had accosted one of my neighbors. When I found out how intimately the police officers know the community and possible perpetrators, I could turn my attention away from being fearful for my family and instead focus on community advocacy and intervention.
Second, there are dollars and cents involved. Local governments across the country are more constrained than ever by limited resources and rising costs. In New York and New Jersey, for example, pension and other negotiated benefits are driving mandated annual increases that result in many governments bumping up against their state’s 2% cap on the growth in the tax levy. Plus in New York existing police union contracts are further insulated from certain cost pressures by law (i.e., Taylor Law, Triborough Amendment) and unions can exercise a binding arbitration process that has historically produced favorable outcomes for their members.
The challenge for local government managers is twofold: what is affordable and for how long? There is nothing inherently wrong with compensating public servants well, especially those who risk their lives on duty. And efficiency must not compromise officer safety. That still leaves the quandary of ability to pay. Taxpayers are confronted with tradeoffs between perceptions of safety—quality and level of service—and the costs that drive them.
3 real-world examples
The 30,000-resident City of Jamestown, NY is bumping up against its constitutional taxing limit and is strained by rising law enforcement costs. The city (with CGR’s assistance) has been exploring more fiscally sustainable policing options, and is now weighing merging the Jamestown police department with the Sheriff’s Office in surrounding Chautauqua County. Potentially the first city-county consolidation of law enforcement in the state, negotiations are now underway to flesh out the impact of a potential merger. Critical to making it work is ensuring an effective, integrated structure that sustains coverage levels in the city.
The Village of Watkins Glen, NY has a celebrated race course, a tourist economy and periodic spikes in service demand for police service. For residents of this small community quality police service has also come to mean personal attention, like having officers know when your dog runs away and helping to retrieve it. Yet, sustaining a police department year round that can meet seasonal demand places burdens on managers and the local tax base. Less than a mile away, there is a full service sheriff’s office, and less than 3 miles away, a state police trooper barracks—but neither are currently responsible for providing dedicated service in the village. Village and Schuyler County leaders have taken the proactive step of studying (with CGR’s help) the options available for service sharing or consolidation.
The City of Camden, NJ ceremonially recognized a major transition this month when ceding its law enforcement authority to Camden County. A metro division within the Camden County Sheriff’s Office now provides dedicated coverage to the City of Camden. Citing unsustainable costs, the mayor had to manage an overwhelming outcry of support for the Camden police department while implementing a fiscally prudent choice that has meant millions in savings for the city and increased the number of officers on city streets.
Solutions depend on community circumstances
Elimination of police departments is palatable to some taxpayers, while the status quo is often the only solution for others. Based on extensive experience, CGR has found there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Some communities have a compelling need for a dedicated local police force. In other communities, having multiple law enforcement option(s) within close proximity likely means redundancies that may offer opportunities for regional service sharing or consolidation.
The bottom line is that efficiency does not have to come at the expense of public safety. What is essential is to start the conversation with the right question. Not “Who’s going to lose their jobs?” but rather, “How can we efficiently keep our community safe?” Some of the immediate next questions are these:
- What do we have?
- How well is it working?
- What options do we have?
Answering key questions with objective data and analysis can lead to productive discussions where the potential for change becomes a shared vision of a better future for everyone.