Although cops live in a world that's often turned on its side, I honestly can't remember a time when things looked quite as uncertain as the current situation we face our withering economy. Many of you will be making some very tough decisions over the next few months, and you should be very, very careful not to simply focus on the short term. Doing so could prove incredibly costly in the long run.
For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, I can sum up the problem in one sentence: Every source of revenue that government depends on is shrinking dramatically, and the primary revenue source (the taxpayer) is tapped out. Traditionally, public safety is the sacred cow when it comes to cutting governmental spending, but this time it's different the crisis is too great, and we won't be spared this time around.
Ironically, this challenge comes at a time when many areas are experiencing significant downward trends in crime rates, some approaching 50-year lows. Unfortunately, the lower crime rate may actually work against us by lessening the urgency of public safety funding. And many politicians feel emboldened to take on labor groups because many constituents believe public servants have overly generous benefit packages. Consequently, any protest by public safety when the cuts come is often seen as self-serving rather than representing the public good.
So, what to do? You will face some tough decisions. Here's my best advice based on more than three decades of policing and working with agencies around the country:
Be very careful about cutting training dollars. Often the first area cut in tough times, this approach may provide short-term savings but result in long-term expenditure. Less training usually results in more citizen complaints, more injured officers and fewer resolved crimes. If you must cut training dollars, do so by training in smarter ways. Consider trading experts with a nearby agency, bolster in-house efforts, use a train-the-trainer approach, conduct on-duty exercises during the early morning hours and design meaningful briefing-room discussions.
Overtime is not the answer. Many agencies leave vacancies open and then hire overtime to cover. This can save money for a short period, but over a long period, it actually costs more money. The reason? Employees get burned out, use more sick time, become less productive and often become financially dependent on a very undependable source the overtime dollar. If you must use overtime, use it judiciously and manage it carefully.
Look for cost sharing opportunities. There's a lot of duplication of high-cost services and equipment in law enforcement. Every region is different, so I can offer only general examples, but they should help you get the idea. Consider pooling or sharing resources in dispatch, K-9, tactical, targeted traffic enforcement, maintenance and air support.
Be very careful about cutting "non-essential" services. Sometimes we take something that is working for granted. That after-school juvenile program just might be keeping your burglary rate down. It's important to consider the consequences before you cut. A seemingly obvious choice may not be the correct one.
Involve before you impose. Too many administrators assume any decision will be opposed so they arbitrarily issue an edict and expect compliance. This is usually the wrong approach. During tough times and cost-cutting, engage personnel in a discussion that allows them to help determine where money can be saved. Not only will there be some great ideas, you're more likely to get support from the very people you thought would oppose the effort.
Let the public know times are tough and some changes will be apparent. Tell them you want to make sure emergency services are available for true emergencies. However, make sure you model behavior consistent with this approach. If officers are seen sitting at stop signs at a seldom-used intersection, average citizens will grow cynical about whether services are really challenged.
Use technology to work smarter. Don't assume new technology is an unwarranted expense. For instance, automated license plate readers are relatively new but have the potential to make the average officer two to five times more effective (based on long-term studies from the United Kingdom where they've been used for several years). This type of tech may even qualify for homeland security dollars.
Finally, look for innovative ways to save. Foot patrol can be enlightening, healthy and very cost effective. This won't work everywhere, but there are many smaller geographic areas where foot and bicycle patrols often have comparable response times to a vehicle.
Times are going to get tough, and as cops have long known, that's when the tough get going.
Dale Stockton, Editor