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In a time of shrinking budgets and tough decisions, some colleges are cutting costs by merging their campus police departments -- but experts are cautioning against trimming too far.

Starting July 1, Smith, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire Colleges plan to partially merge their public safety departments in an effort to make the most of limited funds and resources. The dispatch operation will be centralized to a shared facility on one of the campuses, and the response time is expected to remain the same, said Kristen Cole, a spokeswoman for Smith College. The employees will also cover all three institutions, with the same officers each campus now has usually working on that same campus. This arrangement is expected to create a deeper pool of available public safety officers, reducing overtime costs, said Cole, who would not disclose how much money is being saved as a result of the changes.

All three colleges have student populations numbering less than 2,700, are located about 10 miles apart and share the same director of public safety, which officials say makes the consolidation possible. But the idea of sharing police forces is also under consideration in the urban, densely populated San Francisco Bay Area.

This week, officials from the University of California's campuses at Berkeley and San Francisco began analyzing the possibility of merging their public safety departments. Should those plans solidify within the next few weeks, the institutions could share training, recruitment and other administrative services, and operate under a single police chief, said Dan Mogulof, a spokesman for Berkeley.

Each campus is facing budget cuts of up to $100 million; the University of California as a whole is anticipating an unprecedented deficit of nearly $800 million for the 2009-10 school year. While Berkeley discusses its potential consolidation with UC San Francisco, it has temporarily halted its search to replace its current police chief, who will retire at the end of July.

"It's driven by the feeling that we have a duty and obligation to examine every possible constructive and creative approach to the campus's current budget difficulties," Mogulof said, adding that officials are working to ensure that any merger would not hamper the quality or efficiency of police services.

Christopher Blake, associate director at the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, says that police force consolidations would not necessarily make sense for every college. Potential problems include staffing shortages and miscommunication between campuses, he said.

Experts point out that even if campuses' budgets are shrinking, their police departments have an obligation to maintain the same levels of security. As director of public policy for Security on Campus, Inc., S. Daniel Carter says that any consolidation would need to produce the same or better results in two areas: officers' response time and knowledge of the campuses.

"In some cases it might work, in other cases it very well might not, depending on the geography and proximity of each institution," Carter said. When it comes to large institutions with 20,000-plus populations in urban settings -- such as UC Berkeley -- he said it seems "less feasible" to successfully collaborate: "If there's a huge bay or other geographical gulf, there's something you have to consider when your staff is involved."

Noting that "university security budgets always have historically been some of the most challenged budgets on campus," Carter said there isn't anything wrong with colleges sharing resources -- as long as they're not stretching themselves too thin.

"There's no replacement for an emergency response from a senior on-site response commander," he said.

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