Proposed Mergers of Police Services Gaining Acceptance

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it were up to some of the county's top law-enforcement officials, all Orange County's police department records would be linked to a central office. Police helicopters would patrol the sky above every city. And there would be a uniform, countywide reporting system for auto theft.

Combining some services, officials say, is one way of dealing with increasing calls for service, higher crime rates and shrinking or stagnant budgets.

"We're all faced with budget cuts, and people are screaming for additional service levels," said David L. Snowden, Costa Mesa police chief.

Snowden and the other police chiefs and the sheriff are planning to meet in special session this week in Dana Point to discuss how some police departments might combine certain services or extend others countywide.

Law enforcement officials said any plans for consolidating services would probably involve records retrieval, evidence storage and dispatching functions that most residents do not see.

Some cities have already begun sharing services. Seal Beach, Cypress and Los Alamitos share a court liaison officer, who is responsible for helping provide local courts with information on cases. Those same three cities are studying the possibility of merging their records and dispatching units.

Seal Beach, Los Alamitos and the nearby Los Angeles County city of Signal Hill have a suppression team that focuses on crimes from narcotics to prostitution. Eight Orange County law enforcement agencies share crime-trend and analysis information on a computer database.

"Orange County kind of lends itself to consolidation because of the small police departments in a small geographic area," said Seal Beach Police Chief Bill Stearns.

Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and the Orange County Sheriff's Department on Monday will announce the merger of their patrol helicopter squads.

The cities say the merger of the seven helicopters will increase the time they are available, and they hope that their maintenance and operation costs will be reduced over time by contracting with other cities, said Tom Warnack, a Costa Mesa police lieutenant who will oversee the day-to-day operations of the program.

Just as some police chiefs hope that the helicopter program will eventually spread to all cities, Orange County police agencies have already formed some countywide programs. One of the most notable is the 7-year-old Regional Narcotics Suppression Program, composed of narcotics officers from every county agency. This year every police department loaned officers to the Orange County Auto Theft Task Force.

Several police chiefs acknowledged that although combining forces is one way to improve service, it is not without its problems.

When cities combine departments, "you have a loss of local control, which is a political issue and a valid issue," said Los Alamitos Cmdr. Gary Biggerstaff, who is acting police chief.

"It is also expensive to get out of it" once money and time have been committed, he said. "Once you make the commitment, you are stuck."

Mergers can also mean increased spending, at least initially, as programs begin, several police chiefs said.

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