The United States has a very different law enforcement system from almost any other country in the world.
While most other countries have a central or national police force, we have more than a whopping 17,000 separate local police departments.
People from other countries think this is inefficient and outmoded. But, the reason we have so many departments is for one simple reason—local control.
The founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, felt strongly that law enforcement services should be answerable to local leaders, and they are. Each city’s police chief answers to their mayor and city council.
The local sheriff answers directly to the voters. This concept has become so inculcated in our society that it has become our expectation. Globally, however, it is unusual.
And, while we have made local control a seemingly indispensable part of our system, it comes at a price.
Specialized units, administrative overhead and all the police department functions that support officers on the street are expensive. Underscoring this is the fact that public safety is often one of the largest expenditures for local governments and, therefore, the taxpayers.
In 25 years of law enforcement experience, I have never seen the environment quite like it is right now.
Although I never thought I would see police officers being laid off, it is currently happening in countless agencies across the country. Camden, N.J., recently laid off almost half of their officers; Oakland, Calif., plans to let go of 80 more.
When asked how residents should feel upon hearing this news, the San Jose Mercury-News quoted an Oakland officer suggesting: "Fear — they know the wolves are going to come out."
It has become a cliché to say that the economic ground has shifted, that we have a "new normal."
The reality of the shift has certainly hit all of us in the public sector very hard.
Elected officials and voters are looking closer than ever at the value and efficiencies of the services we provide in the public sector.
Parks and streets departments, maintenance crews, arts commissions, libraries, higher education institutions, even police departments — once thought untouchable — are being very closely analyzed.
So, how do we balance our desire for local control with the need to achieve greater efficiency? Are these two mutually exclusive? The answer is clearly no.
At the King County Sheriff’s Office, we are actively moving ahead to do our part in finding that balance by taking a more regional approach to service delivery. In fact, municipal police departments all across King County are finding more ways to work together to get the job done with the same or fewer resources, and the King County Sheriff’s Office aims to be a trusted partner in these regional initiatives.
Regional SWAT teams, civil disturbance teams, records systems and dispatch centers are already in place, and discussions are underway to regionalize further.
As we regionalize to respect the taxpayer and do the job better, how do we also ensure local control?
• First, through governance models that ensure each city and the county are represented
• Second, through our county’s unique partnership model for providing police services
Many people are not aware that 12 of the 39 cities within King County partner with the sheriff’s office to provide their own unique police departments. The same is true for Metro and Sound Transit Police, as well as the Muckleshoot Police.
The officers serving these partner agencies are sheriff’s office deputies who work full-time assignments for our partners, proudly wear the uniform of their unique agencies and also drive police cars marked with the unique identification designed by each agency. Still, they are King County Deputies.
The operational, administrative and overhead costs are shared across all agencies in the partnership, including the sheriff’s organization, making costs for each police "unit" less for everyone, thereby creating and benefitting from an "economy of scale."
Better yet, this regional cost efficiency is balanced with local control, as each partner agency selects its own police chief from among qualified King County Sheriff’s Office managers, and that chief reports directly to the city manager, the mayor and the city council.
Additionally, each partner agency establishes its own level of staffing and law enforcement priorities.
This balance of regional cost efficiency with local control is exactly what government should be doing.
Municipal departments already work well together, and we are working to overcome a past history of difficult relationships between the county and cities.
We believe partnerships are good public policy. The King County Sheriff’s Office is dedicated to finding further regional efficiencies — not only by continuing to provide quality services to our existing partner agencies, but also working closely with our excellent autonomous municipal police departments to discover new partnership opportunities. Together, we can regionalize where we can and maintain local control where we should.
The financial environment of public safety is changing. Rather than complain about it, we should see it as a tremendous opportunity. Our area police departments and the King County Sheriff’s Office are working together because it is the right thing to do for the taxpayer and for public safety.