|Posted by Occh on December 12, 2010 at 7:59 PM|
SOMERSET COUNTY — Somerset County unveiled an ambitious proposal last week that would combine the county’s 19 police forces into one countywide department by summer 2013.
Now, a group of municipal, county and law enforcement officials will spend the next six months figuring out how that idea can work. “It’s a worthwhile concept, and we need to take a look at it,” said North Plainfield Police Chief William Parenti, who also is president of the Somerset County Association of Chiefs of Police. Each of the 21 municipalities in Somerset County has until late this month to name two representatives to serve on the task force, and Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey Soriano will select from county and police officials to round out the group. (Rocky Hill and Millstone do not have their own forces.) The members will be charged with fine-tuning the merger plan, such as working out patrol schedules, standardizing procedures and integrating labor contracts.
The proposal is the idea of consultant Thomas Banker, a former Essex County deputy administrator who teaches public administration at Columbia and Rutgers universities. The county freeholders hired him more than two years ago after they decided to embark on a sweeping examination of possible shared services in one of the state’s wealthiest and safest counties.
Banker said a full police merger would save local towns nearly $18 million annually, with the towns joining together to govern the force. The county government would not manage the department but would provide support. One chief would oversee the department, with captains steering three precincts in the northern, central and southern parts of the county. Towns ultimately would be billed an amount adjusted each year based on the police activity in their borders.
The plan also means cutting 86 police officer positions, which would be eliminated through attrition over the next five years. A nearly equal number of police-related civilian jobs, such as secretaries, would be shed, Banker said. “We’re just trying to point out what we think people should think about,” he said.
Parenti lauded the effort, but cautioned that there were still flaws that needed to be addressed.
He said Banker’s study put too much emphasis on patrols and not enough on “quality-of-life” officers, such as those who specialize in narcotics or gang-related law enforcement.
Franklin Mayor Brian Levine said he wanted to find out how a reduction in officers would affect crime- and drug-prevention programs, and he wanted to learn how a countywide police force would affect local ordinances. “I’m not saying I’m sold, but it’s something I’d consider,” he said of the proposal.
In the end, a single police force should mean greater efficiency, said Gina Genovese, who runs the consolidation advocate group Courage to Connect NJ. Most of the investigative work would be able to be done in-house, she said. Although county-wide forces have been seen or discussed in states such as Maryland and New York, Genovese said that a successful plan in Somerset County could inspire similar deals across New Jersey. “It’s definitely the direction the state has to go in,” Genovese said. “We just can’t afford the (police) structure we currently have.”