Published: March 21, 2013

Police-fire mergers fuel MSU research program

Contact(s): Andy Henion Media Communications office: (517) 355-3294 cell: (517) 281-6949, Jeremy Wilson Criminal Justice office: (517) 353-9474

Plagued by budget cuts and layoffs, police and fire departments from California to Michigan are exploring controversial options such as hiring civilians, contracting out and merging services.

Yet there remains a lack of reliable information on public safety consolidation, leaving many local officials unsure of which route to take.

A new program at Michigan State University will fill that gap. Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the Program on Police Consolidation and Shared Services is the first in the nation to provide local officials a roadmap to maintaining effective levels of public safety amid dwindling resources.

“Communities are looking for solutions, but there are very few resources out there to guide them through the different options,” said Jeremy Wilson, program director and associate professor of criminal justice. “This program is exciting because if offers a whole series of projects aimed specifically at developing those resources.”

The United States has some 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies. By contrast, there are fewer than 100 such agencies in Canada, England and Japan.

As budgets and staffing levels have shrunk, state and local agencies have had to do more with less. Some agencies have turned to non-sworn staffers; nearly one in three police employees are now civilians, Wilson said.

Another option is consolidating police and fire departments, which may include training personnel to do both jobs. So far, some 128 agencies have merged police and fire administration across the United States, Wilson said. Michigan has the most merged agencies, with 57, ranging from Escanaba in the Upper Peninsula, to East Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, to a host of Metro Detroit public safety departments including Bloomfield Hills, Oak Park and Grosse Pointe.

While consolidation has failed in some communities, it has worked well in places like Sunnyvale, Calif., where all 195 public safety officers are cross-trained to fight fires and crime. The city’s public safety chief, Frank Grgurina, who has worked with Wilson, said the MSU program has his “enthusiastic support.”

“There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the practice of consolidated public safety service,” Grgurina said. But the MSU program, he said, “delivers objective, field-tested and evidence-based research for law enforcement, fire services and other officials to consider in determining the best approach for their specific communities.”

The program website offers a fast-growing collection of research reports and field documents on all facets of consolidation, shared services and related topics.

Wilson and colleagues are developing a series of videos with police agencies that explore the benefits and drawbacks of contracting, regionalization, shared services and other issues.

“We also have several analyses under way looking at contracting costs and benefits, media coverage of consolidation, use of non-sworn staff, labor-management issues and resident satisfaction,” Wilson said.

The program involves faculty members from several MSU departments including criminal justice, labor relations, marketing and communications.