Half of Pa. municipalities rely fully on state police
All taxpayers in Pennsylvania pay for the state police, and the state police serves all taxpayers. It just serves some taxpayers a bit more.
According to the Pennsylvania State Police, 1,287 of the 2,561 municipalities in Pennsylvania have no local police force. Those townships and boroughs rely entirely on the state police for all criminal, traffic and public safety proceedings. They pay no additional fees for those services, and still collect half of the fines from traffic tickets.
There are eight counties, all rural, that are fully covered by state police: Cameron, Forest, Fulton, Juniata, Potter, Sullivan, Susquehanna and Wyoming. Without central population centers, it can be hard to justify having a standing police force for each township or borough.
But Pennsylvania has no state law that requires a municipality, any municipality, to have a police force. Wealthy or poor, urban or rural, if local leaders don't want to pay for local police, they don't have to.
Filling in the gaps
In most states, the county sheriff's office is responsible for patrolling municipalities without local police departments. Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states, all in the Northeast, that puts the primary responsibility on the state police system.
"Fortunately, we are a large department," said Trooper Adam Reed, public information officer for the Pennsylvania State Police. "But it means we need to make sure we have enough manpower and are equipped sufficiently to be able to provide the coverage that municipalities deserve."
According to a 2012 report by the Justice Center for Research at Penn State, PSP spent $540 million to provide policing municipalities without local forces, nearly half the agency's annual budget. It receives no direct reimbursement for these services.
"There is no fee to have us as the primary police force," said Reed. "Other than the taxes that everyone pays, there is no special fee that we collect from those areas."
Reed says the number of municipalities served exclusively by the PSP has remained constant over the past few years. Recently, many small boroughs and townships have dissolved their police forces to save money. But others have formed regional police forces, serving multiple communities together, and have forfeited their PSP coverage.
More than just money
A police department is usually the biggest expense in a city's budget. So if PSP will do the same thing, but for free, why would any municipality have its own police force?
For one thing, the PSP is not the same as a local police force. With one exception, officers are not assigned to a specific municipality, meaning they patrol wide swaths of the county or state. Response time is slower, and they cannot enforce local ordinances, like curfews or parking restrictions. They also don't respond to fire or EMS calls, as local police often do.
Lower Macungie Township, outside of Allentown, has never had it's own police force. With a population of 30,000 and a median household income of over $80,000 a year, the township is not small, rural or poor. In 2012, township leaders undertook a study to consider creating a local police department.
The study found that "local police departments generally provide more in-depth community-level services than a widely-dispersed state police agency can deliver." Some Lower Macungie residents wanted neighborhood watches and D.A.R.E officers in the schools. That's not something the PSP can provide.
The analysis found that the average cost of a police force in the surrounding municipalities, disregarding cities like Allentown and Easton, was $193 per person, per year. That doesn't include start-up costs of creating a police department from scratch.
Lower Macungie has low crime, and most police involvement in the township was traffic stops. The township voted down the proposal to create a police force and today, Lower Macungie is the second-largest municipality served by PSP. Hempfield Township in Westmoreland County, with 43,000 residents, is the largest.
Some people think that's ridiculous.
In an op-ed distributed across the state, Gerald Cross of the Pennsylvania Economy League wrote, "Pennsylvania mandates that communities of more than 5,000 people provide curbside recycling but there is no requirement that municipalities with tens of thousands of people, heavily trafficked roads, high-value homes, and high-end retail areas pay for the basic service of public safety."
According to PSP, the costs and demands of policing municipalities is not a strain on the budget or manpower of the agency. It's what they're commissioned to do. But PSP is not in great shape as is.
According to October 2015 analysis by the Pittsburgh Tribune, 1000 of the agency's 4358 troopers were eligible for retirement in 2015, and 40 percent of them will be eligible by 2019. Recruitment hasn't kept pace, and recent cheating investigations at the State Police Academy has led to a dip in the number of new troopers.
Though the latest budget includes a $9 million allocation to the police academy, years of budget cuts have diminished the agency. A large part of PSPs budget, about $500 million a year, is siphoned from the PennDOT Motor License Fund, which is supposed to pay for maintenance of roads and bridges.
Some legislators in Harrisburg have a suggestion for where to find additional funds for the agency: charge the municipalities that use PSP services.
Representative Mike Sturla, a Democrat out of Lancaster, has been pushing the State Police Municipal Patrol Services Act, for years now. The latest version would charge $156 per capita, per year, directly to the municipality that relies on state police services. It would also allocate funds to help municipalities start regional police forces.
"Local and regional police forces are the best and quickest way to protect our families and keep our streets safe," Sturla wrote in the bill. "Municipalities should work in conjunction with the Pennsylvania State Police — not rely on them to provide primary protection for their residents."
Recall the average cost of police forces near Lower Macungie Township was $193 per capita, per year. The $156 fee might not incentivize municipalities to create a police force where one doesn't exist. But it could stop some from dissolving their department.
Local governments across the state are facing tough choices when it comes to balancing budgets. So far, no city in Pennsylvania, no matter how distressed, has turned over policing to the PSP. But they could, and as long as it's free, it might seem to be an appealing option.
If Philadelphia decided to save $643 million a year by shuttering the police department and laying off 6,000 officers, would PSP be required to step in?
"Technically, yes," said Reed with a nervous laugh. "We'd certainly never want to see that come to fruition, because that would put a strain on our resources. But it would be our job to step in and do the best that we could."
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