Tuesday, December 5, 2006

A Merger That Should Have Already Been

This morning's Post-Gazette contains a very small blurb about a radical idea in Allegheny County government. There is actually some discussion of merging some of the many police departments which haunt this patch of Western Pennsylvania.

Republicans on Allegheny County Council will introduce a proposed ordinance today to merge the Port Authority and Housing Authority police departments with the county police force.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said Councilman Dave Fawcett, one of the sponsors.
Actually, it's idea whose time arrived somewhere in the mid-1980s (if not even earlier), but which somehow has escaped any notice until now.

Let's define some of the players here. First of all, there is the County Police Department, which might have the most worthless web site in all of law enforcement. About the only place where most of us are likely to encounter a County Police officer is at Pittsburgh International Airport, where they provide security. In addition, they have a presence at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin and patrol our large regional parks (although I've never personally seen them there). They also provide the detectives who investigate any major crimes that occur within the many small jurisdictions across the county (i.e., those that have no detectives on their own police forces). As Pennsylvania police departments go, the County Police are pretty large, with room for 240 sworn officers in their ranks (although the most recent Uniform Crime Report data from the FBI shows an active strength of just 187 officers).

The Housing Authority Police who are part of this proposed merger are, presumably, those who work for Allegheny County Housing Authority. They should not be confused with the City of Pittsburgh Housing Authority Police, although such confusion would obviously be completely understandable. It was the city's Housing Authority which employed police officer John Charmo, who so famously shot a man to death to death in the Armstrong Tunnel, and who eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. The county's Housing Authority Police seems to be rather small, and I frankly hadn't even been aware that it even existed until I saw the news of the proposed merger this morning. It is so small, in fact, that one wonders why it wasn't merged into the County Police long ago.

The Port Authority Police are far more visible to most of us, despite having a rather limited jurisdiction. We see their cars parked near bus and T stops downtown, see them driving on the busways, and see the officers themselves on our busses (very occasionally) and trolley cars (a bit more frequently). Given that they work for a quasi-governmental organization like the Port Authority, I wasn't aware that the County Council had authority over these police officers. But if the Port Authority Police Department ultimately answers to the Allegheny County government, then one must wonder -- once again -- why it wasn't combined with the County Police long before now.

From what I can tell after looking into it this morning, it looks like a single government entity -- Allegheny County, all by itself -- is running no less than three separate police departments. The total goes up to four if you count the investigators who work directly for the District Attorney. It goes up to five if you count the Sheriff's Department, which may also end up merging with the County Police after the May 2007 elections. One government. Three (or four, or five, maybe even more) police departments. And they are only now thinking about eliminating all this duplicated effort?

Clearly, the merger makes sense. But the fact that things ever got to this state speaks volumes about the problems our region is facing. The County Government's mistake in allowing so many different police departments under its roof is mirrored many times over by the hundreds of tiny little municipalities which infest the county as a whole.

The County web site lists 118 different police agencies operating within Allegheny County, from the State Police, to the City of Pittsburgh Police, to the Norfolk-Southern Railway Police. Even that number is low, however, since their list is obviously missing a number of university police departments. Just within Oakland and Squirrel Hill alone, one can find the Carnegie-Mellon, Chatham, and Carlow police departments, all of which are absent from the county's list. There are probably other colleges and universities within the county lines which have their own sworn police officers, but which aren't being counted as separate police departments.

Their list also doesn't even include two of the three agencies that are part of the proposed merger (the Port Authority and County Housing Authority departments are missing). The City Housing Authority's police department, despite all of its noteriety, is also not listed, and the City of Pittsburgh's Public School Police Department (yes, there is one) is similarly absent. The real number of police departments operating within Allegheny County is probably somewhere close to 130.

Is it just me, or does anyone else find it disturbing that it's almost impossible to even get an accurate count of how many different police departments exist within the county?

But whatever the number may be, the fact is that we have a simply enormous number of police departments. Paraphrasing a bit from a Brian O'Neil column that I read in the P-G many years ago, we have enough police chiefs in Allegheny County alone to field a 14-team softball league every summer, and still have room for bench depth. If the police departments of Allegheny County are roughly similar to those across Pennsylvania as a whole, then the median department has all of 8 sworn police officers, and more than 35% of them consist of 5 or fewer officers.

The degree of inefficiency here is simply staggering. All these different police chiefs. All these different computer systems. All these different uniforms. All these different patrol cars, with all these different purchasing arrangements, fuel contracts, and maintenance procedures to support them. The list goes on and on, and we keep putting up with it (and paying for it) year after year.

What would make the most sense, of course, is to merge all (or at least nearly all) of the police departments in the country into a single agency. The City of Pittsburgh would probably need to keep their own police force as a separate entity, but the rest of the county could be more than adequately covered by a single police department. It works fine in states such as Maryland and Virginia, and it would work just fine here.

Installing such a system, however, would involve an almost unimaginable series of battles, every last one of which would need to be won in order to achieve victory. Even a single failure, anywhere along a very long chain of decision points, would cripple the entire effort. State law would need to be changed. A county-wide tax structure would need to be imposed. Recalcitrant municipalities that didn't want to give up their own police would need to be forced into a cost structure which made such an option painful, but not totally impossible. Hiring decisions would need to be made about all the police officers who are currently employed with all these different departments. Demotions would be inevitable, some existing officers would not be offered positions with the county, and entire departments (those which have less stringent hiring standards and who have skimped on training) could find themselves out of work.

A massive merger like this would have so many powerful enemies. It would be incredibly unpopular. And yet it is exactly the sort of thing that has to happen if we are to have anything approaching viability (let alone vitality) in our region.


Anonymous said...

Even Kennywood Park has their own armed police force.

Richmond K. Turner said...

Are they real sworn police officers? If so, that's yet another one that isn't on the list! We might squeeze 15 teams into the Chiefs of Police Softball League yet!

Anonymous said...

I don't think Kennywood's officers have police powers? I think that policing should be considered as a regional concern. The successes and failures of one municipality affect bordering municipalities, so there should be better coordination. Also, there's a difference between uniform and detective functions. Why do County detectives investigate homicides in all municipalities except Pittsburgh? There should be a centralized chain of command and coordination of resources to combat the root of 90% of crime in our region, drug use/sales/possession.

Anonymous said...

Kennywoods police have guns. They have sworn police powers.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure an effort to integrate all of these structures would save money. The cost of integrating the computer systems alone would be enormous -- just *studying* the different systems, comparing them, re-designing them to meet all the existing requirements is a big-ticket item by itself...and then you've still got to pay someone to deploy, equip and retrain. And that's just the information systems.

I for one would be delighted to see my city taxes spent on a well-designed, efficient, human-scale information strategy for the city's security infrastructure, but good systems are expensive and rare. We'd be more likely to end up with a nightmare information behemoth rivaling Terry Gilliam's __Brazil__.

Anonymous said...

City Housing and the City just merged. PGH City Housing Police is no more.

Anonymous said...

Kennywood park public safety operates under PA Act 235 (The Lethal Weapons Training Act). Although they where at one time titled as the "Kennywood Park Police" they were not then nor are they now sworn police officers. The Act 235 training authorizes them to carry firearms and other defensive weapons while on duty or in an official capacity, but only as armed security officers. The officers who work at Kennywood possess no arrest authority only the ability to detain for the West Mifflin Police Department.