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Jenkintown Considers Disbanding Its Police Force

Dismayed Jenkintown residents packed a meeting Wednesday evening to discuss whether to disband the local police force and contract services from neighboring Abington, Cheltenham, or perhaps the state police.

“While no decisions have been made, it’s important to acknowledge that the status quo is not sustainable. In the coming days and weeks, look for invitations to join public meetings and engage in discussion to find the right solution for our community,” Jenkintown Mayor Gabriel Lerman said on Facebook.

Later, Lerman said, “The reasons are mainly in looking at how the borough provides for all public safety services and asking the question of whether or not we are providing the best services, at the best price for taxpayers. Finance is a part of that. We have seen our taxes go up in recent years and we know that continuing to raise taxes without addressing root causes isn’t a long term solution. A lot of small municipalities are grappling with this and we wanted to address it rather than pushing off a decision, We didn’t want get into a situation where we have fewer options and are forced to make a decision out of dire need.”

Chief Tom Scott told DVJournal that no decisions have been made on the police department’s future. But, he said, they are facing many issues.

The 2024 borough budget includes $2.5 million for the police department, which is up 6.1 percent from last year, about half the municipality’s budget.

Asked to comment, resident Allison Durkin said her first thought was, “We are subsidizing The Hiway (theater) and the library to the tune of approximately $400,000 to $500,000. And while these are nice parts of our community, they are not public safety. They are businesses. I don’t know why we are subsidizing any business, especially if the budget is in the red and they’re considering getting rid of the police department.”

A 2020 study by W.R. Smeal, a police management consultant, highlighted problems that extend beyond financing. According to the report, in 2019, Jenkintown had:

  • 711 non-criminal investigations;
  • two deaths/suicides;
  • 77 animal complaints;
  • 1,948 traffic enforcements;
  • 178 fire-related calls;
  • 82 lost or missing persons;
  • 189 traffic accidents;
  • 2,377 parking enforcements;
  • 62 thefts and three motor vehicle thefts;
  • 23 vandalism incidents;
  • 21 narcotics arrests;
  • 61 domestic calls;
  • 8 drunkenness citations;
  • 75 disorderly conduct incidents.

There were no murders, rapes, or arsons. The department did not track its conviction rate.

Jenkintown is now down to 11 members, including its chief. And although the study mentions a K-9 unit, Scott said Jenkintown no longer has one.

The study found a lack of supervision and that the records section needs day-to-day attention and is “not in compliance with established professional standards.”

Former Chester County Prosecutor Tom Hogan served as an adjunct fellow with the Manhattan Institute and has published widely on the criminal justice system and public safety, among other topics.

“There are over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, ranging from one-person departments to the over 30,000 sworn officers of the New York City Police Department,” Hogan told DVJournal. “Simply put, there are too many agencies to be efficient. A larger agency provides better training, better equipment, better resources, and more economies of scale. But what you are losing is the knowledge of and connections to the community if you become too large. So regional departments are a good compromise.”

However, Hogan thinks there are issues with asking the state police to step in.

“The state police are a whole different animal,” Hogan said. “They take too long to respond. They rotate their troopers all over the commonwealth so that many troopers have no connection with the communities they service. And the state police think that they answer to nobody, which is a big problem. As an example, they keep trying to investigate themselves when they shoot and kill a civilian, which everybody (except PSP) thinks is a terrible conflict of interest.”

Scott was hired by Jenkintown in 2022 after 25 years as an Abington police officer, so the problems with the Jenkintown Department existed well before his tenure. Scott told DVJournal that he is a “working chief.”

He said there are “many issues,” and by having a discussion with the community about whether to continue to have a police department, officials are “making sure we’re prepared for the future. The police department costs a lot of money,” he said. And “it has had challenges for several years. It’s not just one thing.”

“We’re working together to face all the problems,” said Scott. Right now, “we have no idea” whether they will continue to have a police department or partner with another law enforcement entity.

“We’re doing our due diligence,” he said. “Jenkintown is a 150-year-old community. Some residents have grown up here, bought a home, raised a family.”

“We want to provide the best services,” he said. “We’re looking at the big picture. If we’re not planning for the future, we’re not doing our job.”

But Scott and borough officials are “committed to telling people the truth,” he said.

Another community meeting is planned for Monday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. at the high school. Durkin said she plans to attend Monday to make sure her voice is heard.

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