— Mayor Jerry Abramson smiles knowingly when asked why law enforcement was an emotional flashpoint during the merger of city and county governments here.

It is a war-weary smile. There is a history here.

"It hits people in the gut," Abramson says. "It's public safety. It hits people in the gut."

The merger of the Louisville Division of Police and the Jefferson County Police Department was part of a ballot initiative voters approved in November 2000, making this the nation's 16th-largest city.

It was a stormy affair colored by labor strife over pay and benefits, difficulty in melding two disparate law enforcement cultures and the sometimes unwelcome directives of a new police chief hired from outside the community.

At the same time, the new Louisville Metro Police Department absorbed a wave of retirements that the last county police chief now calls a "mass exodus" of high-ranking officers whose executive positions had vanished.

A tangled web of conflicting departmental policies and procedures had to be reconciled, including workplace issues — tattoos, ownership of leather gear and guns, and use of radio code — important to uniformed patrol officers.

Chief Robert C. White, who was police chief in Greensboro, N.C., when Abramson hired him with a mandate to carry out the merger, recalls problems blending the departments' crime collection data.

"It was a nightmare because the county did it one way, the city did it another way, and I tried to have a clear understanding of how they both did it and bring those numbers together so we could compare 2003 to 2002. But it was just so convoluted, I just said to heck with it," White said, rifling his fingers through a packet containing the latest data.

"It took two years to really try to get some semblance of understanding of those past numbers, and it was just too much work."

Any data before 2005, the chief said, is of little use.

The issue does not arise in Evansville and Vanderburgh County because local law enforcement agencies use the same records management and Uniform Crime Report generating systems. A joint committee meets monthly to vet changes and discuss issues.

"The differences we do have are pretty minute," Vanderburgh County Sheriff Eric Williams said. "We've been very, very careful to make sure we don't create a problem like what (White) described."

Still, there are differences.

When the new Louisville Metro Police Department began operating on Jan. 6, 2003, the elected Jefferson County sheriff remained as primarily a constitutional officer with only secondary law enforcement duties.

In that respect alone it differs from what is contemplated in Evansville and Vanderburgh County, where a citizens subcommittee has recommended consolidating city and county law enforcement agencies under the sheriff's direction.

Another key difference is the sheer size of the Louisville Metro Police Department, which has about 1,600 sworn and civilian employees. That makes it the largest police department in Kentucky in a county of about 700,000 people.

The Evansville Police Department and the Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office have slightly more than 700 sworn and civilian employees between them.

But comparisons are possible — and lessons from the experience of Louisville and Jefferson County discernible — when human factors are considered.

Self-interest, territorialism and resistance to change, much of it attributable to simple human nature, were on full display here during merger. So was community pride and willingness to embrace change.

Indicative of the protracted struggle that law enforcement merger was in Louisville and Jefferson County, the end result is strongly supported in some quarters and only grudgingly accepted in others.

Bill Carcara was the last chief of the Jefferson County Police Department, a hotbed of opposition to merger.

"We were smaller. The city had about 750 officers to our 500, but we had better benefits, we had better work conditions, we had better everything," Carcara says. "In our opinion, the county had nothing to gain. We were going to be the losers."

Carcara, who retired just before merger began, is noncommittal when asked what he thinks about the merger now.

"The number of retirements is an indication that there was a lot of dissatisfaction, but I'm sure if you talk to anybody that's there, they're going to talk about how great it's been," he said.

White says merger was well worth the headaches.

"We have one way of policing," he said. "If it's a case at the border of the county and the city, you no longer have to figure out, 'Do I call the county, do I call the city?'

"There's no duplication. This is more effective and efficient."

The labor wars

In the 26 months that separated approval of city-county government merger by voters and its implementation, police union and other law enforcement committees met to lay groundwork, plot strategy and recommend new structures.

Much of their work was promptly discarded when White arrived from North Carolina with his own ideas and Abramson's full support.

"They had done some planning, but it wasn't the direction I wanted to go, so we didn't," White says.

But there was one fateful decision White could not have discarded, even if he had wanted to.

In 2002, the then-Louisville Board of Aldermen committed the future Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government to pay former city police officers the same salary and benefits as the higher-paid former county officers by July 1, 2003.

The board's contract with the city Fraternal Order of Police also mandated that former city officers, their spouses and children receive the same free health insurance coverage that county officers and their families got, a cherished objective of the police union.

Meanwhile, units of city and county police agencies that were not covered under collective bargaining saw merger as an opportunity to get it. Represented by their separate FOP lodges, they negotiated contracts.

"They had decided they didn't need collective bargaining — but with merger coming, all of a sudden they're like, 'Uh, you know, we can get (mistreated) in this process,'" said David James, president of the newly merged city-county FOP in the year after merger.

All of this put police officers on a collision course with Abramson.

Campaigning that year to win back the office he had held through much of the 1980s and 90s, Abramson was confident of victory in an election he would win with more than 73 percent of the vote. He also had a good idea that his first budget as metro mayor would have zero revenue growth.

Parity in police pay and benefits — facilitated by a one-year transition contract and two preceding pay equity adjustments to account for variances in contract cycles and bargaining units — was a problem.

James says Abramson suggested in 2002 that police officers freeze their salaries for a year. Abramson, who had been a leading champion of merger, ultimately would ask all unionized Metro Government employees to take a one-year pay freeze.

"His idea was that we take several years to get (salary and benefits equalization) done," said James, now a candidate for a Metro Council seat. "Our idea was, 'No, you want a merger and you want it now, so you're going to pay for it now.' "

Not surprisingly, Abramson sees it differently.

"I said, 'If you guys will freeze your salaries for a year, it gives me an opportunity to not have to lay off 125 (Metro Government employees) and 125 families go without health care, and 125 families drop out of the pension program,'" he said.

"I told them that eyeball-to-eyeball. They said, 'It's not our problem, mayor, it's your problem.'"

Positions were eliminated and workers in other parts of Metro Government were laid off in large part because of the FOP's intransigence, Abramson said.

James acknowledges he told Abramson the merged government's financial woes were not the FOP's problem, although he says the mayor never told him the story of 125 families suffering.

"Because we're not the ones who wanted merger," James said. "Look, nobody lost their jobs because of benefits and health care for police officers; they lost their jobs because of efficiencies in government because of merger."

In 2003, the police union would have another big fight on its hands.

Looking to slow down what he saw as a runaway freight train, Abramson tried at open enrollment to drop two premium health care plans for former county police officers and their families that had been extended to the city's officers upon merger. He argued that the plans cost taxpayers an extra $500,000 annually and were unfair because Metro Government's other roughly 5,500 employees had to contribute to their health insurance premiums.

But the FOP pointed out that Metro Government had $61 million in cash reserves. Union leaders said already-undervalued officers had accepted lower wage and benefit increases for years as a condition of keeping the police-only health insurance benefit. Cutting the two plans would amount to a pay cut for officers who had them and would violate their contracts to boot, they said.

An arbitrator ultimately decided the free health insurance coverage should not be taken away without negotiation, and Abramson honored the nonbinding decision.

Nearly a decade after the labor wars of 2002 and 2003, Abramson clearly hasn't forgotten a single parry or thrust. Sitting in a conference room just off his office, he ticks off a lengthy list of benefits in the FOP's first post-merger contract, pausing at one point to ask, "Shall I go on?"

"When it was all said and done, the police individuals themselves were the big winners in merger because they got the best of whichever contract was in their benefit," he said. "They made out better than any other public employee union."

The costs

Officers of the Evansville Police Department and Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office don't get free health insurance coverage for themselves and their families. They also don't receive equal salaries and benefits, with city officers getting higher starting salaries.

FOP Lodge 73, the bargaining agent for both departments, has served notice that in a reorganized government, it would insist on pay and benefits equalization that "averages up" to the higher numbers.

"If not, what you could end up with is, two policemen of the same rank and the same seniority riding a car together, same experience more or less, and one would be making maybe several thousand (dollars) more a year than the other one — while the other one might be looking forward to retirement because his retirement is going to be so much better," said D.J. Thompson, president of the local FOP.

"You would have an immediate morale problem."

In fact, opposition to law enforcement consolidation from the local FOP has been fierce, especially among Evansville Police Department officers who prefer that agency be responsible for policing in a consolidated government or there be no consolidation at all.

Leaders of the local FOP, which has more than 400 members, have argued that reorganization could hurt officer morale, lower service quality, create significant startup costs and even raise crime rates.

"The negatives that are presented by the issue of merging law enforcement go on and on," Thompson, a police sergeant, told reorganization committee members in May.

Thompson and police detective Bryan Brown, chairman of the FOP's consolidation committee, have told reorganization planners that FOP contacts in Louisville recall post-merger fistfights among officers there.

"That didn't happen," said James, now a University of Louisville police lieutenant. "There were shouting matches over merger of the FOP and arguments about merging the police departments, but no fistfights."

Thompson has pegged the startup costs of consolidating law enforcement in Vanderburgh County — new uniforms, painting cars, standardizing equipment and "averaging up" pay and benefits — at more than $1 million.

Answers to questions about the total costs of police merger in Louisville are hard to pin down.

In July 2003, Abramson's office pegged the cost of premium health care plans for police and their families at $800,000 or more. Six months later, it offered an estimate of $500,000. In July, the mayor's office reported the salary increases for about 750 former city officers that were mandated by the former Board of Aldermen in 2002 would cost $1.5 million in the coming year.

In December, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that, "government officials haven't been able to calculate the cost of equalizing the pay of police and their benefits."

The newspaper reported that police cars were being painted and striped at a cost of nearly $350,000, and new police uniforms — for a force more than twice as large as Evansville and Vanderburgh County's combined — were being purchased for more than $512,000.

MetroSafe, a then-planned emergency communications system to connect thousands of previously unconnected police, firefighters and other emergency responders, would cost $60 million, the Courier-Journal reported. About half of that would be paid for by a 911 communications fund and federal grants that Abramson argued wouldn't be available without the departmental growth conferred by merger.

But the mayor's office now says MetroSafe — Evansville-Vanderburgh County consolidated Central Dispatch operations with an 800 megahertz radio system two decades ago — cost about $70 million.

"We didn't really have a reason to — it was never a big issue to say, 'What costs more, what costs less in the police department merger?'" said Chad Carlton, a spokesman for Abramson. "When I talked about it with our budget folks they said, 'You know, we probably should have done something where we added up the, you know, 'Here's the cost advantage, the cost savings,' but at that time we were just focused on getting people on the same footing."

Even if one accepts the Courier-Journal's numbers for the costs of new uniforms and car painting and striping, Carlton said, they are not exorbitant in a police budget that hovers around $150 million.

Carlton said other costs in the Louisville Metro Police Department's budget, such as dispatching and parking enforcement, were shifted to other public safety agencies.

White says the costs of merging law enforcement were offset by the sale of buildings rendered unnecessary and the replacement of departing or demoted executive staff officers whose positions were no longer needed. Those high-ranking officers, he said, could be replaced with younger — and cheaper — officers who "have no real ownership to the county or the city."

"My (first) budget was pretty much the budget of the old city police department and the budget of the old county police department," White says.

"There was no significant increase as a result of merger. Most of the increases that hit my budget were the result of contractual agreements the (FOP) had negotiated with the city."

In Vanderburgh County, Williams speaks of shedding command staff mostly through attrition if the public safety subcommittee's recommendation to put him in charge of local law enforcement is accepted.

The sheriff says he even would keep more command staff than he needed at first, noting that some with significant seniority probably would retire.

"I think it's important that we don't penalize long-term good employees of either agency as a result of this. There should be no immediate loss of jobs, no loss of merit rank, no loss of those kinds of positions," he said.

"If we end up with X number of lieutenants, and we find out that we only need Y, and the difference of that is two, then the first two lieutenants that retire, we're not going to replace. We'll still hire the deputy or the policeman if we need them, but we won't promote."


Command and middle management officers in the former Louisville and Jefferson County departments were left dangling in the more than two-year gap between approval of merger by voters and implementation of it, Carcara recalls.

The former county police chief, who retired at 51 rather than go back to his merit rank of captain, remembers nervous high-ranking officers currying favor with politicians because they were uncertain of their fate in a merged law enforcement agency.

"They were all jockeying for positions," Carcara said. "The ones that couldn't retire were all trying to carve a new niche for themselves. How are they going to fit into this new administration? A lot of them got demoted, and a lot got promoted."

Abramson said Evansville and Vanderburgh County can learn from Louisville-Jefferson County's experience by waiting no more than a year to implement an approved reorganization. Local reorganization committee lawyers have found nothing in state code prohibiting that timetable.

"Too much stuff went on that during that two-year period really didn't move the ball down the field," Abramson said.

The nervousness and uncertainty ended when White finally arrived from North Carolina in January 2003. In their place came angst, as the new chief unveiled ideas — such as transferring officers from specialized units to neighborhood beats and flex platoons — that didn't sit well with veterans of the force.

"The gang squad was immediately eliminated, the street crimes unit was immediately eliminated, and our metro narcotics unit was immediately downsized," James says. "There were a lot of hard feelings about all that because those units were very effective units, and they felt like eliminating those units would cause violence to go up in streets — which it did."

But Abramson's office pointed to a 2009 Real Clear Politics analysis of FBI crime statistics that ranked Louisville among "America's Top 10 Safest Cities." In April, the Courier-Journal reported violent crime was down 12 percent last year.

White says flex teams in patrol divisions are more effective than "having to count on this big centralized unit that might be working in some other end of town when you need it."

White also busied himself in his first year working with committees to blend, as quickly as possible, the two former police departments' critical but divergent pursuit, use of force and interdepartmental discipline policies. Until they were in place, former city and county officers used their old departments' policies.

Officers formed committees to vote on new uniform and patrol car designs, which made some of the bitter medicine taste better.

"You had to have empowerment," White said. "I guess I could have said, 'We're going to do this, this, this and that.' I wanted to get some ownership."

Sgt. Brian Thompson, who spent a dozen years as a Louisville Division of Police officer before merger, said White can be benevolent with officers in a merged agency made younger and more open to change by attrition.

"If you want to police in the city, you can generally transfer to one of the urban districts, and if you want to patrol in the county, you can go out to one of the suburban areas," said Thompson, who supervises a uniformed street platoon of 17 officers.

"... If you don't like it, you can go back to wherever you like it."

Going to the heart of the debate over law enforcement consolidation in Evansville and Vanderburgh County, Abramson said he can't imagine entrusting a merged police department to a separately elected official who would be independent of him.

The mayor pointed to the fact that Louisville Metro Police Department operations consume 30 percent of the Metro Government's General Fund budget. The Evansville Police Department accounts for slightly more than 39 percent of the city's General Fund budget.

"When you get into a conflict with a separately elected official who has control of the No. 1 issue I've got to deal with, I think you create an atmosphere of obvious conflict," Abramson said.

Vanderburgh County's Williams counters that an elected law enforcement head would not have to worry about subordinating the needs of officers to a mayor's political agenda.

"Just because the mayor says, 'Well, I don't want to talk about buying new police cars this year or refurbishing our weapons,' I should still get to make my argument to the (County Council)," the sheriff said.

Abramson's other piece of advice probably would put the mayor of a consolidated government in immediate conflict with the FOP. He said it was wise to bring in a police chief from outside the area.

"(White) walked in with no preconceived notion regarding one department or the other," Abramson said.

Thompson said that wouldn't go over well with FOP members in Evansville and Vanderburgh County.

"You don't know what you're getting. You don't know why whoever's appointing them, what the reason they're appointing them for," he said.

Carcara, now working in corporate security, says some of the conflicts that come with law enforcement merger are inevitable. Others can be avoided.

"Make changes as fast as possible," he said.

"You can't always be a benevolent, democratic administrator when you're merging police departments.

"You'll just get bogged down in debate."

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