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Without these 3 things being agreed upon, forget about police talks: Richard Brandt

Posted 3/15/17

There have been several articles and letters written recently about combining the police departments from Lower Swatara Township and Middletown borough. I would like to add to that discussion. I …

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Without these 3 things being agreed upon, forget about police talks: Richard Brandt

Posted

There have been several articles and letters written recently about combining the police departments from Lower Swatara Township and Middletown borough. I would like to add to that discussion.
I retired as the chief of police of the Lower Swatara Township Police Department last July. I spent 28 1/2 years as a Lower Swatara police officer and prior to that I served 5 1/2 years as a Middletown police officer. I also was born and raised and still reside in the area. Because of my extensive law enforcement background in this area, I believe I can give a unique and educated assessment of what is needed to combine these two departments.
Let me say at the outset, I do believe combining our local departments is something that should be seriously considered. Pennsylvania has way too many small- and medium-sized police departments. The citizens of areas that have several small departments would be much better served by a larger department. The larger department will provide better protection for the citizens it serves and a lot more services that just cannot be offered by the smaller departments.
In addition to better overall service that a larger department can offer, the larger department offers its officers more job satisfaction in ways such as being able to move up to be a supervisor or move into specialized areas of police work that are not possible in a small department. So, the larger department offers better service for the public and more job satisfaction for officers.
It is my opinion that the best police services would come from a county police department. I know that for many reasons that is not going to happen anytime soon, but that would be the most efficient way to offer police services. The next best solution would be a lower county department that is comprised of Lower Swatara, Middletown, Steelton and Highspire. I believe that is possible, but it would involve a lot of work by those four municipalities to make it happen.
That brings us to Lower Swatara and Middletown. I believe out of all the options I just presented this one has the best chance of succeeding in the shortest amount of time. And when I say a short amount of time, I am talking a year to several years. None of this will happen quickly if it is done correctly.
While combining police departments or in this case a contract for services is a complex undertaking, it can be done. I have identified three major items that must be addressed up front before getting into all the other smaller things that will need to be taken care of. If the politicians from each municipality cannot agree on these three items up front, there is no need to take things any further.
The three items are manpower, salaries and pensions.
Manpower
Unfortunately, both Middletown and Lower Swatara are currently understaffed. Both departments need several officers at the very least to be up to a workable staffing level. If you take two understaffed departments and combine them, you have a larger understaffed department. That would not make any sense if you are going to the trouble of combining departments.
Both departments have had professional studies done by outside agencies. Lower Swatara’s study was done back in 2001. Believe it or not, the recommended staffing level from that study is larger than the current staffing level. The Middletown study is much more recent and once again, they are nowhere near the staffing level that was recommended by the professional assessment.
So how many officers will be needed to make this work? You will need four patrol officers on duty at all times in order to have a minimum of two officers in each municipality.
That means you will need a minimum of six officers on each of the three shifts for a total of 18 patrol officers. You will need at least two detectives for each area for a total of four detectives. There is currently a school resource officer, and I do not see that changing. There should be a minimum of three sergeants to supervise each shift. There should be an administrative officer such as a lieutenant to assist the chief of police and finally a chief of police.
By my estimation, you would need a total of 28 police officers, at a minimum, to make this work.
Salaries
This area is easy to understand, but may be difficult to remedy.
Middletown’s pay scale for its officers is higher than Lower Swatara’s current pay scale. If a contract for services is done, Middletown’s police department would be disbanded and the current Middletown officers would be hired by Lower Swatara. That would mean that all of the Middletown officers would take a pay cut.
Some would lose more than others, but all would lose money. They also would lose all of their seniority, except for pension. I certainly would not be in favor of this if I was a Middletown officer and I believe they will feel the same.
Pensions
All municipal police pensions in Pennsylvania are governed by a state law. Both Middletown and Lower Swatara have police pensions set up according to that law, so combining them is possible, but there are some questions that need to be answered before that happens.
There are three revenue sources for police pensions. First is a tax levied by the state called the Foreign Casualty Insurance Tax. This tax money is divided each year by the state and given to each police department according to a formula based on how many full time officers the department currently has working. This contribution from the state can be sizeable, but most municipalities also use it to fund their non-uniform pension fund, so the police departments never see the full benefit from it.
The second source of revenue for the pensions funds comes from the officers themselves. Up to 5 percent of each officer’s salary can be deducted for the pension fund. This is determined by a figure called the Minimum Municipal Obligation. The MMO is figured each year by an actuary and it represents the money needed in a given year to keep the pension solvent now and into the future.
If the state tax money and officer contributions are not enough in a given year to satisfy the MMO, the municipality has to make up the difference from their general fund. Since the stock market fiasco in 2008, the payments into the pension funds by municipalities has been substantial.
When I left Lower Swatara, the police pension fund there was in good shape. It is not fully funded, but it is still in good shape. I have no idea of the current health of the Middletown police pension fund. If that fund is not in good shape, that would be a problem. Lower Swatara would possibly be taking on a lot of debt unless both pension funds are in good shape.
I hope what I have presented is helpful to all involved in this endeavor. It can be done and I believe it should be done, but if the politicians from Middletown and Lower Swatara cannot agree on the items I have outlined right at the beginning of their negotiations, they should not proceed any further.
Let me leave you with this. The main reason to do this should be to build a police department that can give excellent police service to both municipalities. If anyone thinks that doing this will save a lot of money, they would be wrong, it will not. The only savings I could see would be combining the administrative staff and have only one chief and administrative staff.
If the department is staffed properly, see the manpower section above, and since the majority of any police budget is personnel, there will be no great savings, only a great police department.

Dick Brandt is the former chief of the Lower Swatara Township Police Department.

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