This article was written as part of SUDS’ partnership with the Alliance for Police Accountability.
We have updated our post on Allegheny County’s police departments to correct a number of omissions. We’ve made the color scheme simpler so the map is easier to read. And it looks like we touched on a hot issue.
The broader conversation
In our previous post, we highlighted the overlap between departments. We didn’t mention the size of each department. However, several people are talking about the number of small police departments in the US.
“Part of the issue with training is that, in the United States, there are over 18,000 police departments, and most of them are very small. And when you have these little police departments, the capacity to properly train the police officers and establish a culture of accountability is really limited. So I think there’s an important need to consolidate the number of police departments that exist nationwide, for a variety of reasons.”
At The Conversation, Paul Hirschfield discusses how “localism” distinguishes American from European police:
“Each of America’s 15,500 municipal and county departments is responsible for screening applicants, imposing discipline and training officers when a new weapon like Tasers are adopted. Some underresourced departments may perform some of these critical tasks poorly.
“To make matters worse, cash-strapped local governments like Ferguson, Missouri’s may see tickets, fines, impounding fees and asset forfeitures as revenue sources and push for more involuntary police encounters.”
On Meet the Press, Chuck Todd interviewed former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. When Todd asked, “…frankly, we’ve seen a lot of these negative interactions between police and African Americans have actually taken place in smaller, suburban departments. Is there a discrepancy between training [sic]?”, Ramsey replied:
“Well, I mean, you raise a great issue. There are approximately 18,000 departments in the United States. In my opinion, far too many. And we need to look at a long-term goal. More regionalization, better training, more consistency in policy and procedures.
“In your larger cities, where you have a lot of diversity, obviously you have officers that are very accustomed to dealing with a variety of people. We still have parts in our country where that’s not the case. We need to bring people together, but we need more consistency in terms of the training that’s provided, the selection and hiring of individuals. All those kinds of things need to happen. But in my opinion, we have too many police departments. I would try to cut the number in half, maybe by, in the next ten years or so. Because you are always going to have these kinds of issues as long as you have this many departments with different policies, procedures, training and the like.”
At The Daily Beast, Lauren Caroll and Jon Greenburg discuss Ramsey’s argument: Could a cut in the number of police departments reduce police killings?
So how do we cut the number of departments? In Allegheny County, we have two models for reducing municipal police departments: (i) closing a department and contracting out police work to another municipality, or (ii) merging existing departments to create joint ones.
Seventeen municipalities don’t have their own police force, like Dravosburg Borough, in which policing is “contracted out to the McKeesport Police Department”. Both joint and contractor departments have advantages over smaller departments. Information is automatically shared between the municipalities, training and hiring practices are standardized, and larger departments can provide specialized services.
Northern Regional Police Department is the only merged police department in Allegheny County. It is a collaboration between Bradford Woods Borough, Pine Township, Marshall Township and Richland Township; all four municipalities have a say in how the department is run. Joint departments some additional advantage over contractors. The people policing each municipality are more likely to be locals, and residents are likely to have more say in how the departments are run.
However, we (the authors) don’t know as much about non-municipal police departments, such as the Port Authority Police, CMU Police or UPMC police. Given the recent shooting by PAT Officer O’Malley, it seems likely that the problems of small departments and inconsistent training can also exist in transit, school and private police departments. We have a new open question: do these types of organizations ever get rid of their police, and go back to relying on civic police departments?
Updates, additions and answers to questions
Thank you to Eat That Read This for highlighting our original blog post, and to the Alliance for Police Accountability and WPRDC for tweeting it. We received helpful feedback as a result of the increased attention:
- Thank you to Mx Daria Phoebe for pointing out that Norfolk Southern rail police are accredited, and sending us an overview of rail policing. We have added the Norfolk Southern department to the map.
- Thank you to JI Swiderski for pointing us to a complete list of municipal police departments, and answering our question about the Northern Regional Police Department. We’ve added forty municipal police departments to the map, including Northern Regional. For the seventeen municipalities that contract out their police services, we have added who they contract out to.
We also discovered a new department ourselves:
- The rivers are patrolled by the PA Fish and Boat Commission, whose duties include “apprehending [alcohol-]impaired boaters”.
- There’s a department that covers the Pittsburgh Public School system, which has been added.
We presented the map at the Alliance for Police Accountability’s last community meeting, and got several suggestions on other things that we could map out, including:
- The demographic makeup of police departments vs. makeup of the communities they serve. The community data is available through the US Census, and the Pittsburgh Police provide annual reports with data on their demographic makeup. We will need to contact the other police departments to learn their demographic makeup.
- Map out all incidents investigated by Pittsburgh’s Citizens’ Police Review Board, and investigate whether there is a “chilling effect”, i.e. a decrease in calls to police in nearby areas after the incident.
The list of police departments was low-hanging fruit, because all the information was already online. These questions will take longer to answer because we will have to gather more data.
Lauren Renaud is a masters student in Data Analytics and Public Policy at CMU.
Lizzie Silver is a PhD student in Logic, Computation and Methodology and a masters student in Machine Learning at CMU.
In their spare time they participate in Students for Urban Data Systems at CMU, and do research for the Alliance for Police Accountability.