Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What if you called 911, and no one answered?

Historically, public safety services have been considered a fundamental function of government, and the idea of cutting these services, much less going without, was unheard of.  But, the current economic climate has forced some Minnesota cities to make tough choices regarding these services, namely policing.
Foley, Minnesota, population 2603, made news recently after announcing plans to terminate their contract with the Benton County Sheriff’s Office for police services, and hire a private security firm to patrol the city.  The Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, the agency that licenses police officers in Minnesota, both raised objections and concerns that ultimately resulted in the security firm backing out of the contract to patrol the city.  Ultimately, Foley decided to resurrect its own police department, which had been disbanded in 2003.
While Minnesota cities and counties have a nearly unchallenged natural monopoly on law enforcement services, the full range of police services that many Minnesota residents take for granted, from barking dog complaints to traffic enforcement to homicide investigations, are not provided because the city or county is obligated to do so.
No Minnesota municipality is required by law to provide police services, although the Sheriff of each county is required by statute to “keep and preserve the peace of the county”; including keeping the county jail, attending to the district court, and to pursue and apprehend all felons.  Sheriffs in Minnesota have generally interpreted the latter requirement to constitute a legal and moral duty to investigate felonies that are in-progress, but do not recognize a duty to perform any functions outside of those prescribed by statute.  Indeed, the US Supreme Court in DeShaney v. Winnebago County established that in general, the state has no specific duty to protect individuals, outside of those duties specifically enumerated by statutes.
The Anoka County city of Nowthen faced a similar dilemma.  Prior to incorporation as a city, the former Burns Township relied on Sheriff’s Office service that had been provided at no charge.  It’s likely that some of the impetus to enter into a contract with the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office came after learning what services the city wouldn’t get.   A recent Minnesota Public Radio article quoted the Executive Director of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association: "It gets down to the inability to meet the demands of what statutorily we must do and what discretionarily the public wants us to do."
Ironically, despite government’s natural monopoly on police services, shrinking budgets may ultimately bring natural market forces into play, as taxpayers decide exactly what services, and level of service, they want their police departments to provide.

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