Merger Means More Cops People Getting More Protection Would Also Pay Increased Costs
On a recent Friday night in Spokane, 27 police officers prowled the city’s streets.
At the same time, seven sheriff’s deputies were at work in the Valley. Two others cruised the suburban area north of town.
The numbers are typical. While more than 100,000 people live in the Valley and urbanized north county areas, fewer than than 10 deputies are serving them on any given night.
“It’s scary,” Undersheriff Mike Aubrey said. “We get a fight call in the county and we can send two, maybe three deputies. They get a fight call in the city and you can’t find parking.”
City-county consolidation could change that, some law enforcement officials say, but only if some residents can fork over enough money.
The proposed charter would create a regional government by sewing together the current city-county system. The police and sheriff’s departments, like all other city and county agencies, would merge.
In rural areas, police protection probably wouldn’t change.
But the charter directs the city-county council to draw urban service boundaries where people would expect citylike services, including more police officers. That area likely would include the most populated areas of the Valley and the North Side suburbs.
The cost of upgrading services would be borne by residents of the areas that would receive more police services, consolidation proponents say.
Without hurting the current police coverage in the city, at least 50 more officers would have to be hired, police Chief Terry Mangan said.
Mangan, who could lose his job if the proposal passes, doubts enough money would be raised to adequately police a combined urban services area.
To keep up with expected growth, about 70 officers would have to be brought on over the next four years, he said. And the new, merged department would be a much bigger one, ultimately requiring higher salaries comparable to the larger police agencies on the West Coast, he added.
The pay raises alone could cost millions of dollars, he said.
“There are some definite pros to consolidation,” Mangan said. “But people should get ready to belly up to the bar because it’s going to cost big bucks.”
Valley residents definitely want more police, said County Commissioner Steve Hasson, who opposes the charter. But he doubts they’re willing to pay new taxes to get them.
“A measure of that is the bond issues we keep putting up for jails and law and justice,” said Hasson. “They don’t just say ‘no,’ they say ‘hell no.”’
If voters approve the plan Nov. 7, one chief would lead the new department. The new top cop could be Mangan, Sheriff John Goldman or someone new.
Their jobs are the only police positions on the line, though. The charter protects the jobs and benefits of other officers for the first two years of the merger.
City police officers and county sheriff’s deputies are split over the issue of consolidation. Their unions are remaining neutral.
“We don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing,” said Cpl. Russ Cox, president of the Spokane Police Guild. “We’ve tried to find answers” but heard conflicting opinions about the plan’s effect on the department and its employees, he said.
New uniforms and freshly painted cars would be needed for the new department, as well as some new guns. Deputies and police officers carry different firearms, and their weapons would have to be the same in a merged department for training purposes.
The new look could cost upwards of $1,500 per officer. Police officials in other cities with consolidated governments recommend all-new uniforms for everyone, in a color that is neither county green nor city blue.
“You keep people looking different and they’ll act different,” said Mark Wallace, assistant chief of the Athens-Clark County, Ga., police department, where the city and county merged in 1990.
The same goes for cars, said Wallace, who suggests new paint jobs, not just new decals. His department got neither decals nor paint, but were told to drive the old cars as-is until they wore worn out.
“We had officers who wouldn’t drive a car unless it said Clark County,” Wallace recalled. Consolidation could have gone more smoothly in his community if the new government spent money giving officers a completely new look, he said.
In other cities, police departments struggled the most when governments merged. But Spokane could be different.
Even police and sheriff’s officials who are against the plan admit it could be done here with less disruption than in other communities.
That’s because the two departments already share many services and are housed in the same building.
“No other city-county set-up in the western United States does as much together as we do,” said Undersheriff Aubrey, who studied consolidation for his master’s degree program in public administration. “We’re very unique. It’s a plus, especially where merging is concerned.”
The departments share a jail, a property and evidence unit, a fingerprint system, a dispatch center, a bomb squad, a police academy, a records department and a crimes analysis unit. They work together on many investigations as well, including drug stings and homicides. They use the same report forms and get the same intelligence fliers before each shift.
It’s enough, Mangan said, and it’s saved “a ton of money” over the past 20 years. But merging any more now doesn’t make financial sense, he said.
“We’ve already saved that money by consolidating all of those things, all of those services,” he said. “There’s no more money left to save there.”
Aubrey said he tends to agree. If the plan goes through, the biggest change for police and sheriff’s deputies will be working in a much bigger department.
“I’ve never seen big governments be more responsive than smaller ones,” he said. “The county has special needs, and a sheriff’s department has to listen. Now all of the sudden, everyone’s competing to be heard.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Who’s on patrol?
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Bonnie Harris and Dan Hansen Staff writers