In policing, less can be more [Commentary]

Fewer police departments can result in better, more coordinated protection and services

September 11, 2014|By Paul Marx

When it comes to policing, in some places less is better than more. Fewer police departments can result in better protection and better service. In places like Ferguson, Mo., hostility toward the police would be far less likely if the parent St. Louis County had fewer police departments — or even better, only one.

County governments have evolved over time by a variety of ways, with a tendency toward more centralization. The particular form local government takes matters a great deal. It affects local tax burdens, the professionalism with which services are provided and the degree to which racism is to be found.

Some counties are overloaded with separate municipalities. In suburban St. Louis County, there are 90 independent municipalities and approximately 60 different police departments. Many of these municipalities, like Ferguson with a population of 21,000, have a preponderance of white police officers despite having sizable black communities. The larger the department, the more diffuse the influence of the station house philosopher.

In Connecticut, where I used to live, there are 169 separate municipalities and no county governments at all. Almost all of these towns have their own police and fire departments, their own educational districts and tax collectors. I was appalled at all the duplication when I lived there. Loyalty to one's town seemed to be more important than all the money that could be saved by avoiding the multitude of bureaucracies. I should say, however, that Connecticut has a number of towns that are governed well.

When I became a resident of Maryland's Baltimore County, I came down with a case of political disorientation. I thought all the places I heard of referred to separate municipalities with their own governments — Towson, Lutherville, Timonium, Cockeysville. But, no, they were not independent jurisdictions at all. There is but one police department for the whole county of more than 800,000. And one fire department, one education system, one parks department, and so on.

Unlike Maryland's larger, more consolidated suburban counties, suburban St. Louis County is a hodgepodge. Ferguson and all the nearby towns are pretty much on their own. That is an important cause of bad race relations.

Most states require recruits for local police departments to go through basic training at a police academy; in some states there is only one academy, in other states more than one. From state to state, the curriculums are basically the same, with an emphasis on physical abilities and the obvious chores involved in police work.

What varies considerably is the importance given to community relations — and, in particular, white-black relations. The larger the police academy, the more diverse the recruit classes will be. In the larger academies, it is more likely that community relations will be taken seriously, not just spoken of perfunctorily.

Counties, with their larger budgets, are more likely than budget-strapped municipalities to require some form of paid-for continuing education. At the larger academies, new policing ideas and methods are more likely to trickle down from lecture to station house. Police shootings are going to be a must in the curriculum. Beginning policemen will hear that regardless of the provocation, there is no acceptable justification for shooting to kill a person not armed with a gun. Where there is county-wide policing, "He got what he deserved" is unlikely to be heard in a station house.

Camden, New Jersey, a city of 77,000 across the Delaware from Philadelphia, has eliminated its own police department and installed a Camden County police department. Since making the change 16 months ago, the city has blossomed. Over the years, mistrust of the local police had been rampant. Now Camden's police officers have friendly interactions with citizens every day, and the citizens are happy to have them around.

In Ferguson and similar jurisdictions, some young black men have a problem with speeding, which can be controlled simply by not speeding. But they speed and are stopped, disproportionately, by the almost-all-white police. In some instances, they can't, or won't, pay the fine and fail to appear in court. Sometimes, out of necessity, they will continue to drive even if their licenses have been suspended. A common result is that they end up serving consecutive sentences in several jails, and the police will be blamed for their misfortune.

That mindset carries over into other interactions with police. If the long-term goal of policing is to reduce mistrust and breed respect for the law, that is more likely to happen where there are fewer jurisdictions and more enlightened police officers.

Paul Marx lives in Towson and is professor emeritus at the University of New Haven. His email is

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