The stars have finally aligned for a police merger. The key stakeholders are aboard and Mayor Bart Peterson, who has always qualified his cop consolidation plan as hypothetical, now openly predicts its success.
S p e a k i n g directly on the subject for the first time, Peterson, a Democrat, told IBJ the General Assembly wrote a “blank check” allowing a merger between the Indianapolis Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff’s Department.
He intends to see it cashed.
“It’s going to happen. We’ve been authorized by the Legislature to do it,” Peterson said. “We’ll get it done.”
Peterson has also established a timetable. The City-County Council is holding police consolidation hearings. The mayor, who has already eliminated 78 IPD officers, has said he’ll cut 48 more if the merger isn’t approved by year’s end.
The police union, which formerly opposed a merger, has reversed its position. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 86 President Vince Huber endorsed the idea, provided his members’ long-standing concerns about pay, promotions and pension are settled.
“Most members have said consolidation is a good concept,” Huber said. “It just needs to be done right.”
Approval by the City-County Council is the merger’s last remaining legal hurdle. The Council has established a lawenforcement consolidation subcommittee. Its leader, Councilor Mary Moriarty Adams, is holding a series of meetings to determine a consolidation’s cost savings and safety enhancement.
Both she and fellow Democrat Steve Talley, Council president, expect the merger to draw bipartisan support when it comes to a vote.
And even if they can’t broker Republican approval, Democrats hold a one-vote majority on the 29-member Council.
“I can’t imagine all 15 of us wouldn’t step up to the plate,” Adams said.
On June 29, Peterson announced $30 million in emergency cuts from Indianapolis’ $542 million city budget. Along with another $2.5 million in planned fees, the cuts will patch a $32.5 million hole.
Most every city department felt the knife. For example, Parks and Recreation will see its pool season shortened, its lawns mowed less often, and its number of portable toilets reduced. Public Works will reduce non-emergency hazardous-waste cleanup, ease non-regulatory water-quality monitoring, and eliminate residential street sweeping. The city will lose 189 employees by not replacing any who leave.
But public safety departments took the deepest cuts. In anticipation that Peterson’s Indianapolis Works consolidation plan might fail, the city began six months ago quietly leaving unfilled jobs open. The now-formalized attrition process will ultimately eliminate 78 police officers and 44 firefighters. Peterson also reduced IPD’s helicopter fleet from five to two, cut 10 civilian positions, and reorganized IPD’s brass.
“I am not pointing the finger of blame at anybody,” he said. “This is the situation. This is the hand we as a city were dealt, and we have to play that hand.”
IPD Chief Michael Spears is making the best of the situation, shuffling reduced personnel to maintain police presence on the streets. The police union is helping shepherd the process. Its chilly rapport with Peterson two years ago slowed negotiations over cop contracts to a crawl. The relationship has thawed somewhat.
Even so, there’s no way to completely shield the public from the effect of losing so much personnel, Huber said.
“Losing 78 officers will have a negative impact on public safety,” he said. “Something is going to give.”
If the General Assembly passes next session the remaining portions of Indianapolis Works, the mayor’s sweeping proposal to consolidate all sorts of local government services, the positions will be restored, Peterson said.
A police merger would save $9.7 million annually, he said, and Indianapolis Works as a whole would save $35 million a year.
The Council’s consolidation subcommittee has already heard IPD’s financial presentation. On July 6, Marion County Sheriff Frank Anderson, a Democrat, will make his. After that, an open meeting will invite testimony from the public and the airport police, which are also included in the merger. A week later, both departments will make presentations on crime statistics.
In August, Adams plans a series of visits to cities that have consolidated their police, such as Louisville; Nashville, Tenn.; and Charlotte, N.C. The trips will be at least partially underwritten by the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce, she said.
Peterson may have learned a lesson from this year’s failed Indianapolis Works negotiations in the General Assembly. Some critics felt his plan was crafted behind closed doors, then dictated from the 25th floor of the City-County Building.
“I think the biggest mistake the mayor made on Indianapolis Works is he didn’t consult anybody. He did it all on his own. You just can’t get good buy-in that way,” said Phil Borst, Republican minority leader on the City-County Council. “If you really want to be bipartisan, you’ve got to bring people in from the beginning and work with them.”
That’s why the case for a police merger is clearly being laid brick by brick. And Democrats are paying particular attention to the foundation.
“It’s going to be pretty intense for the next six to eight weeks,” Adams said.
The Council first needs to see more hard financial data, she said. If it shows the promised savings, “I have no doubt this would be wrapped up by the end of the year. … The thing is, if there are savings there, we need to capture them as soon as we can and as much as we can.”
Practical questions, like the color of uniforms or the best way to redeploy a combined force, would be left to a transition team of law-enforcement officials, Adams said. To overcome identity struggles, Spears envisions leaving most IPD officers downtown and most sheriff’s deputies in the suburbs. Eventually, new personnel won’t even remember the old divisions.
“It’s my hope [officers will] keep an open mind about it,” Spears said.
Money isn’t the merger’s only motivation. Its supporters also argue it will improve safety across Marion County. Anderson has been pleading for more deputies since he campaigned in 2002. A combined force would shore up the fight against rising property crime. Department statistics show it’s jumped 15 percent across the county in the last two years.
“Even if the dollar savings weren’t there, but we could increase police protection from county line to county line, I would still recommend we move forward with the merger,” Talley said.
But it will have to be structured carefully so as not to thin ranks too much in the city’s center. Statistics show the vast majority of violent crime still occurs in IPD’s district. For every violent crime sheriff’s deputies responded to last year, statistics show, IPD officers handled nearly five.
There are a couple of potential bumps that could still derail the merger.
The police union-which supported Peterson’s opponent in the last election-has calmed its rancor against the mayor. Now it is focused on getting the most it can out of consolidation.
But Huber’s new cordial relationship with Peterson could chill, if he believes union concerns are getting only lip service.
Negotiations have not yet even begun on the next IPD contract. The current one expires at the end of the year. The city struggled to maintain a unified negotiating front with Marion County during the last cycle, and the police union took advantage of the opening. It struck a separate deal for sheriff’s deputies that came back to haunt the city.
To bolster its own position, the city will almost certainly delay the parley over the next contract until after consolidation is in the books, which pushes the police union to the merger table.
“The concept is good,” Huber said. “But the devil is in the details.”
Ultimately, the biggest hurdle may be Peterson’s fellow Democrat, Sheriff Anderson, who has offered only lukewarm support. From the start, Anderson has consistently said he’ll follow the “will of the people,” with one caveat. He believes the sheriff, as the highest elected law enforcement official, should lead his department.
But Peterson’s original police merger plan asked Anderson to report to a threemember metropolitan police commission. The mayor would appoint two of its members and the Council would appoint the third.
To get a consolidated police department, much like the Indianapolis Colts’ new stadium, Peterson may have to give up control to another elected official.
“Hopefully, everybody’s going to realize we work for the people and we’ve got to get about the business of doing the people’s work,” Anderson said. “My position is that, if the law decides that’s what I’m to do, or the people decide, that’s what I will do.”