When the Memphis Police Department (MPD) upgraded its multi-million-dollar communication system, the Shelby County Sheriff's Office was added to the platform. By joining forces, the law enforcement agencies saved taxpayer money.
But don't think that means the two departments are ready to share.
County commissioner Mike Carpenter presented a plan last week to the Law Enforcement Consolidation Task Force that would shift county law enforcement to MPD and make the jail the sheriff's sole responsibility.
"Two weeks ago, task-force members said they weren't sure what we were talking about. There were no specific proposals," said Carpenter, the group's chair. "We need a long-term view. This isn't about the individuals running things today. It's not about the mayor."
Under the proposal, a five-member Public Safety Commission would guide a functional consolidation of the two entities. The commission would consist of five representatives: someone from MPD, someone from the sheriff's office, a representative of the county mayor, a representative of the city mayor, and a chair, appointed jointly by the city and county mayors. All the mayoral appointments would be confirmed by the City Council and the County Commission.
The plan, which would ultimately require a change in the county charter, would give leaders a chance to reverse or opt out of consolidation agreements if things weren't going well.
Carpenter called his 21-page proposal a "starting point." Though several other members of the task force seemed to agree, Sheriff Mark Luttrell called it "premature," "pre-emptive," and "ill-timed."
"One of the most polarizing issues facing the community is consolidation," Luttrell said. "I feel the report pre-empts the committee process."
Mike Heidingsfield, director of the Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission, the organization that suggested functional consolidation of the departments' basic training, traffic, search and rescue, and internal affairs divisions in a 2003 report, felt similarly.
"This perspective assumes this group has decided that consolidation is the path to follow. I don't think we've gotten there as an entity," he said.
Just the word "consolidation" is controversial. Unfortunately, as Carpenter noted, there will never be an "apples to apples" comparison with another city or county. But the proposal makes a good case, citing the elimination of boundaries, a rising jail population, potential economies of scale, and an elimination of unnecessary duplication.
Representatives from three other consolidated police departments told the task force that their organizations were more efficient after consolidation.
Robert White of the Louisville Police Department said, "Everything there were two of, there is now one of, and people are getting the same type of service."
As it is, MPD and the sheriff's office rarely operate jointly. The Metro DUI unit, the Memphis Shelby Metropolitan Gang Unit and the Metro Narcotics Unit, once joint crime-fighting efforts, have all been disbanded.
"Joint efforts at attacking non-federal crimes and day-to-day policework appear to be virtually non-existent," the report noted. "These kinds of differences in philosophy and mission and disputes between the departments are avoided to the benefit of citizens under one single law enforcement agency."
But perhaps the strongest argument for a functional consolidation is that it will happen one day whether citizens vote on it or not.
In its 2003 report, the Crime Commission noted that, because of annexation, there will be fewer than 20,000 residents in unincorporated Shelby County by the year 2020.
"Continuing at the current staffing levels to provide law enforcement for the small area described above is impractical and effectively results in municipal taxpayers, who are also county taxpayers, subsidizing law enforcement services for a small portion of unincorporated Shelby County."
Before its law enforcement divisions were consolidated, Charlotte, North Carolina, was in a similar situation.
"It was not going to be long before the county police did not have a jurisdiction to police," Charlotte representative Russ McElwee told the task force. "One of the strongest arguments for consolidation was the city people were paying county police salaries without any of the benefits."
Consolidated law enforcement may not save money, although it has in some places. But that's probably not the main issue for citizens of a high-crime society.
The success of law enforcement isn't measured in dollars and cents but in safety and security. And, as the report noted, law enforcement may see boundaries but criminals don't.