Metro police forces have worked elsewhere

Consolidating police forces — an idea being pushed by Delaware’s chief justice — isn’t a novel concept across America, and has been employed with varying degrees of success in dozens of jurisdictions.

More than 40 years ago in Nevada, the Las Vegas police merged with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office because both forces were strapped for manpower and had duplicated services in record-keeping and administrative tasks. In 1999 an outside agency credited the merged force with having fewer managers than other large departments, and said protection of the citizenry was of ‘excellent quality.”

Today the Metro Police has more than 2,700 police officers serving a population of about 2 million — nearly four times that of New Castle County — but in recent years has struggled with budget deficits that led to hiring freezes.

Other places where city and county police have merged include Charlotte and Mecklenberg County in North Carolina and a handful of areas in Georgia, such as Savannah and Chatham County.

In the Savannah area, serious crime has dropped about 30 percent countywide since the 2005 merger, to the lowest rate in 40 years, city spokesman Bret Bell said. The collaboration took about a year to implement, Bell said, crediting cooperation between the two police chiefs and governments. “It was politically very popular, pretty smooth,’’ Bell said.

Bell said the merger took place for several reasons, including the ability to share criminal investigations and data and create patrol beats that align to geographic realities. Besides, he said, since criminals don’t worry about crossing boundaries, why should police be bound by the ones separating the city from the unincorporated county.

All the officers became city employees, and the two police unions agreed on changes to their pension and benefit plans. The county agreed to pay the city a fee for police services.

Over time, though, the county’s cost of the non-patrol costs has risen — causing consternation among officials. Today, some county officials are proposing to end the arrangement, but both sides are negotiating about what to do with the force, which has about 600 officers.

‘We’re optimistic that we’re going to be able to resolve” differences and maintain the merged force, Bell said.

Beyond combining police, entire city and county governments have merged in places such as Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Fla., Nashville, Tenn., and Louisvile, Ky.

The Lousville city/county merger has long intrigued Larry Zutz, a Wilmington insurance executive whose old college friend is former Jerry Abramson, former Louisville mayor and Kentucky lieutenant governor. Zutz brought Abramson to Wilmington in 2012 to address the Wilmington Rotary Club, where he touted the benefits of Louisville’s merger with Jefferson County.

Zutz, whose company has a downtown Wilmington office, said he’s “all for serious investigation’’ of government consolidation. Such a move could make the city safer but also benefit the countywide economy — so both governments aren’t competing against each other for the same businesses for tax revenues.

“I don’t see how the city gets out of this mess itself,’’ Zutz said. “It’s time to stop this flow of blood.”

When Abramson was in Wilmington, he told the lunch crowd at the Hotel du Pont that a combined government put more cops on the streets, provided a more efficient emergency medical service, and allowed the city and county to speak with one voice regarding economic development, rather than a mayor and county executive making individual pitches to prospective businesses, Abramson said.

The core of merger philosophy realizes that every place is a “suburb of somewhere,” Abramson said, comparing municipalities to a “patchwork quilt” of communities that can be compromised by crime, dilapidated homes and drug problems — regardless of whether they occur inside or outside city limits.

“As the corners of that patchwork quilt begin to fray,” Abramson said, “the entire quilt’s at risk.”

Abramson’s audience included former U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, who said the concept has promise, but believes it would take a “dynamic’’ leader to make it happen. Also listening was Tom Gordon, a former county police chief and county executive who voters put back into the top county spot that fall.

Gordon said then that neither the city or county would be amenable to a merger because both have fiscal challenges. But he believes better collaboration can eliminate duplications such as in police communications.

At the county’s 911 call center, built in 2007 near Minquadale about a mile from city limits, operators take some 525,000 calls a year. The facility has the capacity to accommodate expansion, said William F. Street, assistant chief of emergency services.

“We were built,’’ he said, “with an eye toward the future.”

In a recent interview, Gordon said financial hardships might one day force city and county governments to come together. But it is not feasible now — either fiscally or politically.

“If you take two broke governments and combine them,” Gordon said, “you get one broke government.”

Contact senior investigative reporter Cris Barrish at (302) 324-2785, cbarrish@delawareonline.com, on Facebook or Twitter @crisbarrish.

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