Cash-strapped county mulls part-time cops: Merger lets combined department add more reserves

Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson has long clamored for help fighting crime in the suburbs. Thanks to the police merger, he’ll soon get it-from volunteers.

The City-County Council ordinance authorizing a merger between Anderson’s Marion County Sheriff’s Department and the Indianapolis Police Department allows for a massive, 239-percent increase in the use of unpaid reserve police. Anderson, a Democrat, will have leeway to use up to 657 reserves in addition to the combined department’s 1,642 full-time cops. That’s 463 more than the two departments use now.

Long before the police merger debate began-indeed almost from the first day he took office in 2002-Anderson has pleaded for 250 more paid deputies. But the cashstrapped county has never found the money to hire them.

Anderson, who will lead the combined force, currently uses 164 reserves in the suburbs to augment his full-time force of 410. IPD uses only 30 reserves to back up its larger force of 1,232 inside the old city limits.

Rather than hire 250 new full-time cops, the combined department is considering training and equipping hundreds of new reserves. Merger supporters call it a smart way to shore up local law enforcement at a minimum cost.

“To Steve and Joe Citizen, the uniforms and cars are the same,” said City-County Council President Steve Talley, a Democrat. “They have the same powers and have gone through the same training. There’s no differ- ence with merit officers.”

But consolidation detractors worry whether part-time reserves can be wholly effective at curbing crime.

“You’re talking about somebody that does a job once or twice a week tops, not every day,” said William Owensby, first vice president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 86. “The reserves are a valuable tool. But they can’t do the job of a fulltime officer. It’s a Band-Aid. It’s a temporary solution to a permanent problem.”

Essentially volunteers

MCSD has long relied on reserves, who are essentially volunteers. Paid just $5 per year, the county provides their training, uniforms and guns.

Some reserves leverage their status to land private-sector security jobs in banks and corporations. If reserves live within Marion County, they’re also allowed to take home police cars, although City Controller Bob Clifford pointed out they’re usually the oldest cars in the sheriff’s fleet.

“They’re not getting a 2006 Crown Victoria with shiny wheels,” Clifford said. “They’re getting the 1999 with 100,000 miles on it and a good engine.”

On call at all times, reserves must work at least 24 hours per month. Deputy Ryan Rowley is a good example. An MCSD reserve for three years, Rowley also is a full-time firefighter. He spends his days off filling in gaps for Anderson’s department.

Some days, that means responding to traffic complaints or escorting parades. But Rowley also sees more dangerous duty, answering emergency calls just like his full-time colleagues.

“The Sheriff’s Department makes sure we’re trained as well as the full-time people. The only difference is we don’t get a paycheck,” Rowley said. “It’s a very high standard they hold.”

Indeed, proponents argue one of the benefits of expanding the reserve program is that it would provide more opportunity for Anderson to scrutinize candidates before they became full-time cops. Anderson’s attorney, Kevin Murray, said the reserve program is a good “testing ground” for would-be full-time cops to gain experience and show their worth.

New reserves also could help keep IPD’s force within the old city limits. Opponents have long feared the merger will allow Anderson to move IPD cops into the suburbs to satisfy his need for more personnel. But Peterson and Talley both made explicit public pledges to prevent any shifting of ranks from the city’s center during their watch.

That leaves new reserves as the only immediate opportunity to increase the combined police department’s strength in the MCSD district.

“When you add all that up, that’s why folks say this can be done without thinning police protection in the central city,” Murray said. He added that Anderson hasn’t yet decided whether to use the combined department’s full reserve capacity of 657.

But part-time personnel often have other obligations, argued City-County Councilor Jim Bradford, a Republican and vocal police merger opponent. Bottom line, they can’t take the place of the 250 full-time deputies Anderson formerly said were vital.

“Here’s the difference: Somebody who works for you every day is going to do the work. Somebody who volunteers their time is going to be a totally different type of employee,” Bradford said. “Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate those people in the reserves. But if you’re going to depend on them to cut crime, I have to question their ability.”

Imagine the whiplash

In the long term, the merger’s authors expect to add more full-time cops as well as reserves. Right now, the two departments have duplicate brass. The merger promises no officer or deputy will lose merit rank as a result of consolidation, but when captains and lieutenants step down or retire, they’ll be replaced with new beat cops.

Clifford said the process should take just a few years, thanks to retirement incentives offered by both departments. Until then, Anderson’s ability to redistribute his personnel will be restricted by promises Peterson and Talley made to broker the merger’s passage.

Both signed public documents explicitly stating their promises to keep IPD’s force intact inside its current jurisdiction. City-County Councilor Scott Keller, a Republican, required the pledges to secure his swing vote. That will certainly freeze law enforcement patterns through the next election cycle.

But what if local political leadership should change? There’s nothing in the language of the police merger ordinance that says IPD officers can never be moved into the suburbs. And FBI crime statistics show for every violent crime committed in the suburbs, five are committed within old city limits.

Those same crime demographics will keep any future sheriff from irresponsibly redistributing personnel, Keller said. Shifting cops from one part of the city at the expense of another would be a recipe for angry voters.

“You want to put officers where the serious crimes are. I see no practical or political advantage in not doing that, whether the sheriff is a Republican or Democrat,” Keller said. “Why would a sheriff do anything else? Why would the mayor do anything else?”

Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations President Cathy Burton has heard such promises before. Unless it’s written into law, she said, no political pledge lasts forever.

“I have no reason to think the mayor or Mr. Talley will not honor their words. But there’s nothing legally binding in there. There’s no institutionalization of those promises,” Burton said. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard, ‘That’s something promised by the previous administration, and we can’t do that.'”

City-County Councilor Lance Langsford, a Republican, dismissed all the fuss over reserves. The United States leans heavily on military reserves in Iraq, he said. Cost-conscious local officials shouldn’t hesitate to use the same concept in law enforcement.

Langsford’s and Keller’s swing votes allowed the police merger to pass.

“Forty percent of the deployed armed forces are now National Guard and reserves. They’re volunteer citizen soldiers. They’re helping to fight and win the war against global terrorism,” Langsford said. “It’s no different than that.”

For the sake of the city, Burton said she hopes the merger’s authors prove its skeptics wrong.

“This is the largest change we’ve seen in government since Unigov was institutionalized,” she said. “Come election time, we’ll be hunting for a new City-County Council and mayor if this doesn’t work. I can’t imagine the whiplash.”

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