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Combined police coverage hasn't gained popularity in Allegheny County

| Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012, 11:25 a.m.
Philip G. Pavely
Northern Regional Police Chief Bob Amann (left) and Lt. John Love at the station in Pine Wednesday August 26, 2012. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)

Forty-three years after Pine, Marshall and Bradford Woods formed Allegheny County's first merged police department, Northern Regional Police remains the only force of its kind.

Municipal and county officials have talked about combining departments in different areas from southern Butler County to communities in the Route 65 corridor to the Mon Valley, but community leaders say the plans never seem to get off the ground.

“From what I hear from other chiefs, it seems like supervisors, commissioners or whoever's in charge don't want to give up their authority or autonomy,” said Michael Dennehy, 75, chairman of the Pine supervisors. Richland joined their joint department in 2006. “Most of the time the reason is, I think, it's a turf thing.”

The funding formula for Northern Regional is based on the percentage of calls each municipality gets.

With 965, Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of local departments, according to federal statistics. Texas is second with 788 local departments. Allegheny County alone has 107 departments.

Some communities have signed contracts with a larger neighboring departments to cover their public safety needs, instead of merging departments. Ohio Township covers seven additional communities through agreements — Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Emsworth, Kilbuck, Neville, Aleppo and Sewickley Hills.

“What it does is, when you take all the money from the contracts, you put a product out there that's equivalent to bigger departments,” said Ohio Township Chief Norbert Micklos, whose department has 31 officers. “We have a K-9 officer, a school resource officer, 14 cars, motorcycles. It's much more comprehensive than a little community on their own. These other communities are like a part of us. The way we look at it, we're one big community.”

Ron Stern, local government policy specialist for the Pennsylvania Governor's Center, said the state agency offers municipalities a free feasibility study to determine the benefits of a proposed merger.

“We'll come in and take a look at the area. We'll look at the layout and chart out the demographics, the budget, manpower. We'll look at the organization of a department,” Stern said. “It's up to the municipality to see it go forward.”

Many smaller municipalities say they like having dedicated departments for their community and don't want to see their officers pulled in to neighboring towns.

Munhall Mayor Ray Bodnar said he doesn't think it would be wise to merge with Homestead and West Homestead.

The communities share the Waterfront development complex.

Bodnar said Munhall is the biggest of the three boroughs but Homestead likely would bring the most calls.

He said the boroughs share other services.

“We would have to pick up the large share because we're the one with 22 full-time officers. That (Northern Regional) formula would be impossible with Homestead,” Bodnar said.

“We already have a mutual aid agreement with all the communities.”

Seven Fields and Evans City might form a regional department in Butler County, now that the Seven Fields is requesting to withdraw early from its police service contract with Cranberry, according to Seven Fields officials.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. arranged for Micklos and Northern Regional Chief Bob Amann to speak at a conference this year about how their departments work.

Zappala said several departments in the Mon Valley could merge to form a regional department.

“They could use McKeesport as a hub. Many of the surrounding communities don't have the tax base to support a department,” Zappala said.

He pointed to Swissvale and Braddock Hills as another possible merger.

“The whole idea is not to respond to crime — it's to deter crime in the first place.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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