Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Can't blame them for asking

During the Q & A after my speech at last week's Chamber of Commerce luncheon, I was asked a question that has repeatedly been posed to me for the past 20 years or so: "Would it be feasible to merge the police department with the sheriff's office?" The answer, of course, is "Yes." You could merge the police department and the library system if you wanted to. Whether it would be a brilliant idea is another matter. As the only person around who has served as both Lincoln's police chief and the Lancaster County sheriff, it's probably not unusual that people would ask me.

The merger question is usually posed by business groups, because their members are often conscious of what stuff costs, and thinking about what efficiencies might be achieved in government. More broadly, people sometimes ask if it wouldn't be possible to simply merge City and County government. Personally, I think this is always something that elected officials should examine and think about. There are potential advantages and disadvantages, but in a time of falling government resources, it is particularly important to consider all options. We already have a few merged City-County agencies: the Personnel, Information Services, Planning, and Health, for example.

Most people are not aware that the police department and sheriff's office have already merged several of our functions. Over the past 30 years some of the high cost support services of the police department and sheriff's office were combined: computer systems, evidence, physical facilities, communications. These are major cost centers, and have saved a boat load of cash. Whether these two agencies should be completely merged is the question.

LPD and LSO have decidedly different missions: services to courts, extradition, and civil process are major functions at the sheriff's office that have no corollary at the police department. On the positive side, I think there are some dollars to be saved by merger--primarily in the form of fewer management positions that would be necessary if the two agencies became one. On the negative side, I am concerned that the services to residents of Lancaster County's small towns, villages, and rural areas might deteriorate: the bright lights of the City would almost inevitably drag the officers towards the incidents that are filling dispatcher's queue screens. When I was sheriff, keeping the patrol deputies on their districts and outside of the City of Lincoln was a challenge: merge the agencies, and the workload of the big city will draw on the resources that would otherwise be in Hallam, Kramer, Davey; on Highway 77, 33, 43, 34, 2, and so forth.

Fully-merged countywide police agencies are not entirely uncommon, but they are normally found in large metro areas where a single city is essentially consuming an entire county: Las Vegas Metro Police was a merger between the Las Vegas Police and the Clark County Sheriff. Indianapolis and Marian County became Indianapolis Metropolitan Police, Charlotte and Mecklenberg County became the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police. In the midwest, Manhattan, Ogden, and Riley County Kansas became the Riley County Police clear back in 1974.

Is it feasible? Yes. Is it a good idea? That's more a political decision than an operational one. I can't blame anyone for asking.


Anonymous said...

Yes, merging LPD and LSO is feasible - but a really bad idea - much like merging the Army and the Marine Corps.

Charity said...

I admit that I really don't know much about the LSO, or LPD for that matter - your blog is very educational for me. :-)

But I was wondering if a merger would also affect the ability to notice little signs of something about to go wrong? For example, from what I've read a lot of meth producers prefer rural locations to run their labs (which may or may not be the case in Nebraska). Given your seeming preferences for nipping things in the bud, I would think this would be a concern.

Is this a possibility or am I just surfing the Web too much?

ARRRRG!!!! said...

This merging stuff could get out of hand. What if we merged pirates with ninjas or pirates with Star Wars characters?

David Bratzer said...

I think in some cases it does make sense to amalgamate departments or even entire municipal governments. In my area there are thirteen municipalities for a population base of 370,000. I think an amalgamation of some or all of the municipalities is in order.

In your case, however, it sounds like the two departments have substantially different functions and also cover different types of geographical areas. And if they did amalgamate, which municipal government would be in control (on paper and in real life) of the merged force?

Anonymous said...

Check out Nassau and Suffolk Counties on Long Island in New York. Both have county Police and Sheriff side by side with very little overlap or duplication of services. Maybe not completely appropriate to Lincoln/Lancaster County needs, but worth a look

Anonymous said...


You are correct in saying that Lincoln does not occupy most of Lancaster County. Lincoln is ~75 sq. miles; Lancaster county is ~847 sq. miles, so Lincoln is less than 9% of the county's land area. In any case, having some mission overlap doesn't make either of the two agencies redundant.

Tom Casady said...

6:12 -

I agree: overlap of jurisdiction and (somewhat) mission does not make agencies redundant. If you consider LPD, LSO, and UNLPD, I think we've done an excellent job avoiding that through interlocal agreements, combining many high-dollar support functions, and just using common sense among agency managers that all get along.

BTW, believe it or not, Lincoln is now just a tad over 90 sq. miles. Wow, how it has grown.

Anonymous said...

Up to 90? You really need that East Station as soon as tax revenues will support construction. It's got to be an awfully long drive from the main station/county jail to the extreme limits of LPD's jurisdiction.

It's my impression that inter-agency cooperation is already excellent around here, so the agencies do interact smoothly when needed, including NSP and UNLPD. Like my earlier parallel to the idea of merging the USA and USMC (which has actually been proposed in one form or another by pinheads from time to time), once you know what the different entities actually do (and don't do), you quickly dismiss the idea of a "merger". Some mission overlap doesn't equal redundancy, and it's best to preserve specialized tools for appropriate tasks.

Kyle Larson said...

This idea has been coming up in Boone County for several months now. The Sheriff's Department and Police department are both small, and both think it would be more feasible to merge. However, the cities/towns all want a cop in there town, and the Sheriff said that probably isn't feasible or possible having so much area to cover. I don't see LSO and LPD ever merging.

Anonymous said...

The only way a city county law enforcement merger would work is if Chief Casady became Sheriff.

Ready to trade in the badge for a star Chief?