Police merger? Hard sell

Combining forces makes sense, but it's tough to commit.

Albert McCarthy's is a familiar face to the residents of Kennett Township.

Whether attending homeowners' association meetings, settling disputes between neighbors, or offering antidrug talks at schools, the police chief of this Chester County community of fewer than 8,000 people is always on duty.

"He's everywhere, almost like the town chaplain. His presence adds something to the township, and it brings people confidence," said Allan F. Falcoff, one of three town supervisors who installed McCarthy as chief, patrol officer, traffic cop, and lead detective in a one-man police department two years ago.

But across suburban Philadelphia, that Mayberry-like level of personalized police service is becoming harder and harder to afford. As municipal budgets tighten, talk of consolidating some of the state's more than 1,100 police forces is growing.

In Bucks County, officials in four municipalities anchored by Doylestown Township and Doylestown Borough are considering teaming up. Early discussion of combining forces has also commenced in Upper Makefield and Newtown Township.

A handful of communities in Montgomery County, too, including Douglass and New Hanover Townships and, in a separate venture, Lower, Upper, and West Pottsgrove, have also recently discussed banding together.

And consolidation talk continues in Camden County.

But if history is a guide, departments face a messy courtship before any wedding is announced.

Nearly four decades after making consolidation a priority, Pennsylvania has more police forces than any other state. New Jersey has the highest concentration of departments - more than 450 across its 8,700 square miles - among the 10 most populous states.

In Philadelphia's Pennsylvania suburbs, there are more than 172 municipal forces. Almost half have fewer than 10 full-time officers. And despite years of discussion, only three regional departments exist in Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties.

"It always comes down to money and control," said Ron Stern, a local-government policy specialist with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). "Who's going to take charge, and who's going to pay for it?"

Most policy experts agree that consolidation makes sense. Larger departments can be more economical, while offering more opportunities for specialization in fields such as narcotics, K-9 response, and white-collar crime.

But when it comes to logistics, the marriage rate remains low and the divorce rate high.

"Everybody agrees it's a good idea," said Doylestown Borough Police Chief James Donnelly, "but nobody wants to be the first to give up the keys to the kingdom."

Of the Philadelphia-area municipalities considering mergers, those in discussion with Donnelly's department appear most likely to make the leap - perhaps because while they are not quite "married yet," they've been "shacking up" for years, he said.

Officers in Doylestown Borough and Township routinely consult with each other and those in neighboring Warwick and New Britain Townships. Their officer unions have modeled contracts off of one another.

And Donnelly, while overseeing the Doylestown Borough force, has also served as interim chief in New Britain. Several of his officers pick up overtime shifts.

With the chiefs in Doylestown Township and Warwick near retirement, the stars seem aligned.

A DCED feasibility study recently reported that the four municipalities could slash a combined $380,000 from their law enforcement budgets by teaming up and reducing the number of officers patrolling the region from 60 to 55.

From a practical perspective, it just makes sense to consolidate, Doylestown Borough Manager John Davis said.

"There's a general sense that consolidated departments are the future," he said. "Our council wants to be driving the bus rather than trying to get on at a later date."

While Davis and Donnelly are confident that some form of regional department will emerge from the talks, an attempt at an area merger in the mid-'90s foundered over cost-sharing and representation on the board needed to oversee the regional force.

Warwick supervisors are already echoing those concerns in this latest go-round.

"I don't think numbers are the entire story," said Supervisors Chairwoman Judith Algeo at a recent Warwick board meeting.

Such sudden cold feet are not uncommon when it comes to police mergers.

In New Jersey, suburban leaders have quietly raised questions about a proposed Camden County force for fear that officers would spend too much time in crime-ridden Camden.

Even in one of the oldest consolidated forces in Pennsylvania, the union has not always been blissful.

The Montgomery County communities of East Greenville and Pennsburg combined to create the Upper Perkiomen Police Department in the mid-'70s, but as Pennsburg grew rapidly in the early 2000s it wanted to expand the 11-member force.

East Greenville, whose population and tax base have remained relatively stagnant, disagreed and nearly dissolved the union.

"Right now, we have two mayors who are still committed to the force," East Greenville Mayor Ryan Sloyer said, "but whenever the people on your various governing boards change, these commitments always come into question."

That's why Kennett Township has opted to stick with its one-man force, said Falcoff, the mayor.

Although the community once flirted with joining up with neighboring Kennett Square, ultimately, Falcoff said, his residents prefer the cop-on-the-block service that McCarthy provides.

"Police protection is intrinsic to what municipalities do. It's probably the single most important thing residents pay attention to," he said. "And people here are comfortable with Albert."


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 610-313-8212 or jroebuck@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer James Osborne contributed to this article.