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Time to give police regionalization a serious look

It’s time for the four Panther Valley communities to seriously look into whether a police regionalization arrangement can better serve the population.

I am not talking about mutual aid or something along those lines where if one community needs help on a call, others are available to give a hand. I am talking about a bona fide rethinking of the entire police process, which has worked well in some nearby communities but never got off the ground in others.

A letter from Lansford Borough Council President Bruce Markovich recommends police-sharing as a short-term solution to staffing issues that each of the four boroughs has been experiencing for the past several years.

I am proposing that these communities go even further and set up a police regionalization study commission to determine whether these communities of fewer than 4,000 residents each would be better served by such a regional force rather than by the system under which they have operated essentially since they each became boroughs.

Nesquehoning is by far the newest incorporated borough among the four, coming into existence in 1964 after being a part of Mauch Chunk Township. Lansford, oldest among the group, was incorporated in 1876. Summit Hill became a borough in 1889 and Coaldale in 1906.

The combined population of the four is closer to 13,000, but each continues to lose population, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. In 1940, Lansford’s population was more than 8,000, while Summit Hill’s was nearly 6,000. Today, Lansford has about 3,800 residents, a loss of 53%, while Summit Hill has about 2,950 people, a drop of about 51%. Coaldale had 6,100 residents in 1940 compared to today’s 2,200, a loss of 64%. Nesquehoning’s population is about 3,200 compared to about 3,400 when it became a borough 57 years ago, a loss of about 6%.

It is a struggle for these communities to keep a fully staffed force. There are any number of reasons. Fewer are willing to go into police work because of the political and social climate in our country. Experienced officers are quitting police work and deciding to pursue different careers.

These smaller communities are relying more on part-timers, some of whom are also employed in other communities on a part-time basis. Once they acquire valuable experience they are frequently lured away by bigger departments, including those in the Lehigh Valley.

As a result, these communities spend a tremendous amount of time trying to keep the forces operating at levels that give adequate protection. These cash-strapped communities are finding a tough go of it.

Of course, our area is not alone. More than 80% of police departments in Pennsylvania have fewer than 10 officers. Just about a fifth of all departments are regionalized. Some smaller communities have disbanded their police forces altogether and now rely on state police coverage.

A few years back, a federal study commission strongly recommended that departments with fewer than 10 officers consider consolidation to improve effectiveness and efficiency.

There have been some major success stories with regionalization, most notably in Monroe County, home of the largest such force in the state. The Stroud Area Regional Police Department includes the boroughs of Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg and Stroud Township.

Together, the force of nearly 50 officers services a 39-square-mile area whose chief is Jennifer Lyon, the only female police chief in the county. The department is governed by a nine-member commission consisting of three representatives from each community. Granted, the Stroudsburg area is larger (about 31,000) and economically healthier than the Panther Valley, so it certainly is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Another is the Colonial Regional Police Department established in 1995 among Lower Nazareth and Hanover townships and Bath borough in Northampton County. Bath withdrew in 2018 because of cost considerations and opted for state police coverage instead.

For every successful regionalization, there are failed attempts, too. When the question was studied more than a dozen years ago in the Panther Valley, Summit Hill decided that regionalization was too costly for its taxpayers.

Despite an exhaustive study in 2018 and lots of initial enthusiasm, three municipalities in Schuylkill County never followed through on the recommendations of the benefits of a combined department. Involved were Pine Grove borough and Pine Grove and Tremont townships.

The Berks-Lehigh Regional Police Department was in existence from 2001-2012, when it disbanded because Upper Macungie Township, one of the four participating municipalities, decided to start its own police department. The Berks communities involved were Topton and Lyons boroughs and Maxatawney Township.

Through the formations of these regional police districts, some municipalities have found more professional police services can be provided.

Having one police department covering four neighboring communities allows each to enjoy the benefits of a larger department that can provide not only routine services but also select specialized services.

Because the federal and state governments encourage local departments to consider this approach, both make grants available for such studies and, in some cases, help sustain the effort once it is up and running.

The four Panther Valley communities owe it to their residents to at least take a fresh look at this.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.