By James Robins
Policing is an essential service, but the decision of how to do it isn’t always simple. Keeping the department local or contracting with the county sheriff is a challenging question that smaller cities sometimes grapple with.
There are many significant, complex factors to consider, and there is no one model that works best for all small cities. Contracting is a decision that must be weighed carefully because it’s one that is not easily reversed. The upfront costs of setting up a police department—including office space, equipment, patrol cars, computer systems, possible jail arrangements, etc.—make it nearly impossible to drop a county contract and re-establish local policing.
Every city faces different circumstances related to budget, patrolling needs, personnel, crime rate, and a variety of other important elements when determining how to provide police services. In some cases, cities might consider contracting with a neighboring city for police services, but that’s not always an option. At least 200 of Minnesota’s 853 cities have made the decision to contract with their county sheriff ’s office, according to the Minnesota Sheriffs Association, but the decision to contract with the county is not easy and rarely without controversy.
Factors to consider
As executive director at the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA), Dave Metusalem has advice based on his extensive experience. With three decades in law enforcement—including stints with the Los Angeles County and Ramsey County sheriffs’ offices—Metusalem has closely observed relationships with 45 contract cities, and seen many local department and contracting disputes surface over the years.
When a city begins to think about contracting, it is important to keep the process transparent, notes Metusalem. “The process often moves several steps ahead before citizen and officer input is considered. Because of this, it often becomes quite contentious and sometimes fails,” he says. A key ingredient for a successful transition is buy-in from all involved.
Rob Boe, public safety program coordinator with the League of Minnesota Cities, says there are several questions a city should ask throughout the process, including:
These are just a few of the questions cities might ask when making this important decision. Andy Skoogman, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, also encourages communities to consider the potential negative consequences of outsourcing law enforcement services, “particularly as police officers across the state are being called upon to work harder than ever to build close, strong connections with the citizens they serve.”
When a city contracts out its police service, it loses control over the hiring of its police chief, “which we believe is an expression of a community’s values,” Skoogman adds. “Local, community-based control and oversight of policing is reflective in the policies and practices that govern the way law enforcement officers interact in the community. Though we understand the economic challenges faced by small communities, we do not regard the outsourcing of essential public safety services as an effective tool for budget management.”
Experiences with contracting
Still, some small cities find that contracting works for them. The City of Hanover (population 3,264) has been contracting out its policing services since the 1980s. The city is divided between Wright and Hennepin counties, and has contracts with the sheriff ’s offices in both counties. The contracts come up for renewal every two years.
City Administrator-Clerk-Treasurer Brian Hagen says working with two counties routinely “poses some hurdles,” but that is true with a range of services, including tax assessing, elections, and others. For the most part, the contracts have run smoothly, been beneficial to the city, and provided appropriate police coverage.
“We tend to be a very safe community,” Hagen says. “The crime rate is low.” The contracting has worked well, with Wright County patrolling four hours a day and Hennepin three hours a day.
Discussions about policing issues with both sheriffs have also gone well, and communications with regular point-of-contact officers (typically a lieutenant) make it “easy to get an answer” from both counties. The city is treated as a client, Hagen says.
With more than 30 years of contracting experience, Hanover has had ample time to work out any kinks. But it often does take a little time to adjust when the situation is new.
Baudette, a small northern Minnesota city with just under 2,000 residents, recently transitioned to contracting with Lake of the Woods County for police services. It took at least 10 years of planning to get the city and county “on the same page of expectations and cost,” says City Clerk-Treasurer Tina Rennemo.
“The cause [for contracting] was the constant turnover of chiefs and officers,” Rennemo says. “They would come in, get trained, and then take a job in a larger community.”
The county seat community borders Canada and is 36 miles away from the nearest U.S. city, so a cooperative police department arrangement isn’t practical. The contracting started last October, and the first month included a period of adjustment as deputies became familiar with city ordinances they must enforce, such as one that bans hunting within city limits.
On the city side, Baudette councilmembers are also adjusting to the arrangement. For example, Rennemo says they would like to see more policing visibility for the cost of the new contract. But, she adds, these start-up problems are “small things.”
Local policing in Eden Valley
While some small cities have trouble keeping officers, Eden Valley has had the same police chief for 25 years. City Clerk-Treasurer Mona Haag believes that’s the secret to their city police department’s success. In addition to Chief Ernest Junker, the department has two officers for the city of just over 1,000.
The potential for contracting has come up at various times during Haag’s three decades as city clerk, but it’s never been seriously considered.
Haag points to many benefits of having local police, “especially if you are fortunate enough to employ a police chief who understands policing in a community.” Her examples include local control, having officers who know the people in the community, and know how different people will react to different situations, such as domestic calls and juvenile issues.
The upside relies on “having a police chief that lives in the community, is a member of local organizations, and is pretty much available 24/7 to answer calls and address concerns,” Haag says.
Chief Junker is involved in the schools and the community, and he has built a high level of trust with students and other residents, she says. He spends time with senior citizen groups, providing information about safety and other topics of concern to them, and he has a good working relationship with local businesses.
In the end, every city has its own unique and complex set of variables that enter into the question of whether to keep a local police department or contract with the county sheriff ’s office. Solutions are never one-size-fits-all, but when cities take the time to assess their own situation and communicate decisions openly, they can usually find the right path for their community.
James Robins is a communications and policy specialist for the Minnesota Association of Small Cities, and principal for Robins Consulting. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (612) 597-0214.
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