Cop merger might have just enough: Backers make concessions in effort to build majority

Keywords Government

It’ll be close. But Mayor Bart Peterson may have just enough support to make his proposed police merger a reality.

The City-County Council is expected to vote on the issue Oct. 31. Advocates are hurriedly negotiating with key players, hoping lastminute concessions will pull a handful of councilors off the fence.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a wide margin either way,” said Peterson, a Democrat. “But I do believe it will pass. Because at the end of the day, when people sit down and think about this, they’ll realize we really don’t have any other options.”

Peterson continues to argue a merger between the Indianapolis Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff’s Department will save taxpayers money and improve police protection across the county. Opponents continue to argue the opposite. They concede local government’s financial woes have created a funding crisis for public safety, but don’t like Peterson’s solution.

IBJ canvassed the council’s 29 members. Democrats, who have a one-seat majority, mostly favor consolidation. But several members of their caucus still have doubts.

On the other side of the aisle, one or two Republicans might swing, if their concerns are addressed. With their aid, Peterson would be able to claim bipartisan support as he signed the merger into law.

But most Republicans are adamantly opposed.

Also lining up in opposition is the police union, which is already preparing to contest the merger if it passes. Sgt. Vince Huber, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 86, said his lawyers believe they could halt consolidation in state or federal court.

“The standard for them to achieve according to state statute is, [the plan] must be reasonable, adequate and in the public interest. This is a rushed decision. It does not meet the legal standards,” Huber said. “We might take the necessary steps to file an injunction to stop it.”

Many councilors are eagerly waiting to hear Sheriff Frank Anderson’s final opinion. Anderson, a Democrat, had opposed the merger on grounds that his authority wasn’t clear in the consolidated department. As the highest-ranking locally elected law enforcement official, Anderson said, his decisions over a combined department’s operations should be final.

He also wants to see more rank-andfile participation in the new department’s construction. He wants the combined force to be shaped by cops, not councilors. Anderson has advocated slowing the pace of consolidation and exploring mere collaboration instead.

But the council appears keen to push the issue to a vote. Anderson’s attorney, Kevin Murray, said negotiators in recent days have made dramatic progress narrowing their differences. He expects Anderson to make a public statement on his final position before the council vote.

“Right now, I’d say the game is still going on,” Murray said. “And there’s still time on the clock.”

After months of study, most Democrats are ready to vote for the merger today. But a few have lingering reservations. Councilor Angela Mansfield, for example, wants to be sure cops in the combined department would live inside Marion County.

Other Democrats, like Councilor Patrice Abduallah, want to give the debate more time.

“We won’t please everybody with this thing. This is something we have to do and must do, but I don’t think it has to have a drop-dead date of Oct. 31,” Abduallah said. “I want to give the constituents who sent me the chance to absorb what it is we’re trying to do for them. I think that’s only fair.”

At least one Democrat plans to vote against the merger unless its terms change radically. Councilor Sherron Franklin said she has reservations about giving Anderson control of the combined department, since Anderson’s stance has varied from lukewarm support to outright opposition.

That’s why Peterson will likely need to pick up at least one Republican, and perhaps several. He’s working with GOP Councilor Scott Keller, for example, to gain a key swing vote.

Like Anderson, Keller wants to see trained law enforcement professionals deciding the details of the merger. As a concession to Keller and Anderson, the mayor and his supporters are expanding the advisory group that would construct the department.

“There’s going to be something, whether it be [partial] consolidation or [full] merger,” Keller said. “If law enforcement officials are in charge, to me that’s a different critter.”

Perhaps the biggest difference between Keller and the rest of the Republican caucus is that most in the GOP won’t take a leap of faith for just an idea of a police merger; they want to see more specifics.

From the start, Peterson’s process has been about gathering information to support the general theory behind the merger. He believes that should be enough for the council to pull the trigger authorizing the process.

All the details-such as the color of uniforms, the borders of police beats, or the structure of salaries and benefits-are to be worked out during a two-year transition. The first year would concentrate on administrative back-office functions; the second would tackle law enforcement consolidation on the street.

Detractors dispute Peterson’s projections of financial savings and question his assumptions about boosting efficiency. They also worry that IPD cops will be diverted from the city’s center, where violent crimes are the highest, to patrol the relatively sleepy suburbs.

“If they want consolidation, why don’t they consolidate all the schools, too, if it’s such a great thing and it’s supposed to save money?” asked Republican Councilor Jim Bradford.

But their biggest beef is that they’re being asked to vote on a theory, not a detailed plan.

“It’s all been bogus numbers, suppositions and, ‘Just sign it and we’ll figure it out,'” said Republican Councilor Isaac Randolph. “Well, that’s not how you do public policy, in my opinion.”

And opponents believe Peterson’s rush is political. They say he wants to be able to bolster his case in the 2006 General Assembly for the rest of Indianapolis Works, his Unigov overhaul.

“I think we’re going to gamble with public safety by not having all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed,” said Councilor Phil Borst, Republican minority leader. “I’m not going to say I would never, ever vote for consolidation. But right now, it’s just not ready. And I can’t see letting political reasons prevail.”

Council President Steve Talley, a Democrat, acknowledges he’ll likely need a little Republican help to get consolidation through. If the merger fails, Democrats say they have no idea how they’ll pay for two separate police departments in the long term.

“At this point, we’re not going to take any votes for granted,” Talley said. “There’s no plan B.”

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