It is time for the four communities of Panther Valley to seriously consider whether a police regionalization arrangement can better serve the people.
I’m not talking about mutual aid or something like where if a community needs help on a call, others are available to lend a hand. I’m talking about a good faith overhaul of the entire policing process, which has worked well in some neighboring communities but never got off the ground in others.
A letter from Lansford Borough Council Chairman Bruce Markovich recommends police sharing as a short-term solution to the staffing problems that each of the four boroughs has been experiencing for several years.
I propose that these communities go even further and set up a study commission on police regionalization in order to determine whether these communities of less than 4,000 inhabitants each would be better served by such a regional force rather than by the system in which they functioned essentially since they each became boroughs.
Nesquehoning is by far the most recent borough of the four, which came into being in 1964 after being part of Mauch Chunk township. Lansford, the oldest of the group, was incorporated in 1876. Summit Hill became a borough in 1889 and Coaldale in 1906.
The combined population of the four is closer to 13,000, but each continues to lose population, according to figures from the US Census Bureau. In 1940, Lansford had a population of over 8,000, while Summit Hill had nearly 6,000. Today Lansford has about 3,800, a loss of 53%, while Summit Hill has a population of around 3,800. about 2,950 inhabitants, a decrease of about 51%. Coaldale had 6,100 inhabitants in 1940 compared to 2,200 today, a loss of 64%. Nesquehoning has a population of around 3,200, compared to around 3,400 when it became a borough 57 years ago, a loss of around 6%.
It is a struggle for these communities to keep a fully staffed force. There are a number of reasons. They are less likely to be ready to work in the police force because of the political and social climate of our country. Experienced officers leave police work and decide to pursue different careers.
These small communities rely more on part-time workers, some of whom are also employed part-time in other communities. Once they gain valuable experience, they are frequently drawn to larger departments, including those in Lehigh Valley.
As a result, these communities spend an enormous amount of time trying to maintain task forces at levels that provide adequate protection. These cash-strapped communities are struggling to cope.
Of course, our region is not alone. Over 80% of Pennsylvania police departments have fewer than 10 officers. About a fifth of all departments are regionalized. Some smaller communities have completely disbanded their police forces and now rely on state police coverage.
A few years ago, a federal study commission strongly recommended that departments with fewer than 10 officers consider a consolidation to improve effectiveness and efficiency.
There have been some major successes with regionalization, most notably in Monroe County, which is home to the largest force of its kind in the state. The regional police service for the Stroud region comprises the boroughs of Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg and the township of Stroud.
Together, the force of nearly 50 police serve an area of 39 square miles headed by Jennifer Lyon, the county’s only female police chief. The department is headed by a nine-member commission made up of three representatives from each community. Granted, the Stroudsburg area is larger (around 31,000) and economically healthier than the Panther Valley, so this is certainly not an apples-to-apples comparison.
Another is the colonial regional police service established in 1995 between the townships of Lower Nazareth and Hanover and the borough of Bath in the county of Northampton. Bath pulled out in 2018 due to cost considerations and instead opted for state policy coverage.
For every successful regionalization, there are also unsuccessful attempts. When the issue was studied over a dozen years ago in the Panther Valley, Summit Hill decided that regionalization was too costly for its taxpayers.
Despite a comprehensive study in 2018 and a lot of initial enthusiasm, three municipalities in Schuylkill County never acted on the recommendations of the benefits of a combined department. The Borough of Pine Grove and the townships of Pine Grove and Tremont participated.
The Berks-Lehigh Regional Police Service existed from 2001 to 2012, when it was dissolved because Upper Macungie Township, one of the four participating municipalities, decided to create its own police service. The Berk communities involved were the Boroughs of Topton and Lyons and the Township of Maxatawney.
Through the formation of these regional police districts, some municipalities have found that more professional police services can be provided.
Having a police service spanning four neighboring communities allows each to enjoy the benefits of a larger service that can provide not only routine services but also selected specialized services.
As the federal and state governments encourage local departments to consider this approach, both make grants available for such studies and, in some cases, help sustain the effort once it is operational.
The four communities of Panther Valley owe it to their residents to take at least a fresh look at this issue.
By Bruce Frassinelli | [email protected]
The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.