I traditionally dedicate my December column to exploring ideas police managers can use to make their departments better. With money tight this year and getting even tighter, I think it's appropriate to look at strategies that don't cost a lot, but could still pay off. Here are a few ideas:
•This will probably not resonate with a lot of readers, but now is the time to put pay debates in perspective. Don't get me wrong. I was underpaid when I was on the streets and had to work extra jobs to make ends meet. I believe police, as a profession, deserve good pay and benefits, but this isn't the time to push the issue. Jurisdictions are letting officers go to help balance their budgets. I don't know a single department that can afford lay-offs. Now could be the wrong time to ask for more money: There's a real chance that the public, already stressed by a bad economy and watching services cut as taxes rise, will start to see law enforcement as greedy and self-serving. Wait for a return to reasonable prosperity before making pay your top priority, or you're likely to see your numbers shrinking.
•Tap into the civilian community. I'm not talking community policing here, I'm talking about trolling your community for resources that can help you do your job: Volunteers, reserve officers and high-tech help that can give your aching budget a break.
One way to tap into that civilian community is to stay in touch with it. Don't wait around for an invitation to speak to community groups, instead liaison with them and let them know you or one of your officers will be glad to come out and talk to them. That's when you can make your case for budgetary needs, volunteers and other help. Ask them what they can offer you and the citizens you serve. Many people don't realize there is a need they can fill unless you first tell them.
•Ask yourself, "How professional do my officers look?" Recently my spouse, a retired police executive, remarked on a uniformed officer he saw wearing white-framed sunglasses with green lenses -- worn turned around on the back of his head. Command presence isn't served by sloppy, dirty, goofy-looking or disheveled officers. If you want the public to take you seriously, then make sure your people are squared away. It only takes one officer to make the whole department look bad.
•Recruit veterans. Individuals who have been in the military already know how to work as a unit, follow orders and possess weapons proficiency. It might be worthwhile to set up recruitment efforts at military bases. I know a number of large agencies do this on a regular basis -- why can't smaller agencies do the same thing? Is there a military base within hailing distance of your department? Most bases hold regular job fairs for troops (or sailors or airmen) who are preparing to get out. And don't concentrate only on the younger ones. Many military retirees do their twenty and are out at the ripe old age of 38 years. Even the older guys -- in their 40s and 50s -- stay in great shape and make good officers. Plus, military retirees in their second careers tend to stick around. Instead of giving you two years and moving on, you're more likely to keep them around for 10 years. That's worth the price of training.
The upcoming year promises to be full of the kinds of challenges that police executives could do without: Less money available to accomplish more things. The only way to make it work is to buckle down and take that belt in a notch: Run a tight, light ship. Police can't afford to be the reason taxes are raised when the public sentiment is so anti-government, but they can find innovative approaches to common problems.