What does Oakland, CA., Camden, NJ, Port St. Lucie, FL, and Akron, OH, all have in common? Apart from being a representative sampling of municipal America, they all either face or have faced police layoffs - in record numbers. Agencies are shedding uniforms faster than "The Biggest Looser" can shed pounds. Unlike traditional recessions where the health of regional economies differs greatly, this one is wide ranging and long term. In fact, historians of The Great Depression offer that without the social services that had been statutorily enacted in the aftermath of that era our current Great Recession would actually have been a greater depression than that of the 1930s. Imagine the 15 million Americans who are presently out of work without their unemployment benefits, federally subsidized housing or other governmental assistance? Images of soup kitchens ran by churches and tent cities in local baseball parks should conjure up images...
The New Normal
Even The President of The United States is pessimistic. Obama commented to CBS's 60 minutes this past November 7th that he feared a ten percent unemployment rate was what the American public needed to get used to. That often touted U.S. Dept. of Labor statistic of 10% is misleading too. Some states struggle with 15% if not higher. In terms of public budgeting principles, the trickle down effect is starting to have an affect. As the tax base shrinks there is less and less money available to operate government services that include the essentials; Police and EMS/Fire. Once Rainy Day Funds are depleted, then personnel must go. It's as simple as that. Nearly two years ago I wrote a piece where I predicted that within 18-24 months police agencies would face a menace unlike anything that has ever been dealt with since the inception of our nation - a near economic collapse of our government it terms of the safety services it could provide. That time has nearly arrived and this spring promises that pink slips will bloom across our law enforcement agencies nationwide rather than flowers. For more on this issue make sure you watch the recent 60 Minutes special below, titled State Budgets: Day of Reckoning.
Drastic situations call for drastic measures and I am about to embark on a series of recommendations that are certainly going to be unpopular with my brothers and sisters in law enforcement. My purpose here with these proposals is simply to generate discussion, among you. The answers to the economic issues facing our respective agencies begins and ends with you, and I'm not talking about giving concessions in your Collective Bargaining Agreements either. At some point, sooner better than later, good information needs to ascend to the top of our governing system (legislature, executives, etc.) from the rank-in-file. Far to often we are told what is going to happen by the political elect, and if we do not like the answer it is often to late to change anything. Think Police Pension Reform - get my drift? Okay, now that I've given you my disclaimer, let the hate mail begin.
I'm sorry, but police agencies need to be consolidated. Patrol Officers and Investigators need to be retained, but supervision (especially at the command level) needs to thin out. The fragmentation of policing where nearly every small town has their own police department led by its politically appointed chief should become a thing of the past (such as the Wild West did). Agencies need to become streamlined, without redundancy of operating units (Gang, Vice, Narcotics, etc.) and the dominant policing strategy should be Community Oriented Policing - departmentally wide. For those of you who think that community policing is simply being nice and not real police-work then my response is that someone failed you. You were not trained properly, and you do not have a realistic understanding of what community policing is all about. When done properly it's aggressive and arrest oriented while it builds a tremendous intelligence apparatus. It's real cop work.
Public Safety Officers
A few progressive city councils, nearly thirty years ago, realized that maintaining a city police and fire service was not fiscally feasible long term. An analysis of service revealed, for instance, that a city of roughly 20,000 residents generated policing activity that could be as high as one hundred times greater than that of its fire service. Both operating budgets were nearly the same. The idea was that if cops could be cross trained to perform the fire function instead of having to fully staff a fire department could save millions of dollars annually; hence the Public Safety Officer concept was born. The fire department will not be happy with this recommendation, but the truth is who are the first responders to fires (cars, houses, whatever) or to medical emergencies when requested? The police. The idea is not all that bad. Those cities that did combine their police and fire departments would put the displaced fire fighters through the police academy, recertify them as cops, and then transfer the personnel into the newly formed public safety agency. Other officers were certified as EMTs or Paramedics and then paid handsomely for having to maintain a boatload of certifications.
Mandatory Retirement Age
Federal law enforcement does it, so does the military. The fact is policing is a young persons game. Some would argue that the notion that cops usually die within five years of retirement is nothing more than an urban legend while others say the true concern are the health issues not causing death but high rates of disability. Regardless of your position on this issue, just look around your agency and see who is doing the lions share of aggressive street policing. In my experience, those with gray hair did the minimum if they were still assigned to patrol. I'm not knocking that, though. Those officers certainly earned those gray hairs (if they still have hair) because of all those years of chasing crooks (or more realistically fighting with the police administration). It happened to me; the first ten years of patrol work I stopped everything when working patrol-drug interdiction. After stints in supervision, investigations, and other assignments I found myself back doing what I did nearly two decades prior and found that I did not have the same assertive zeal I once had. I was burned out. I'm not saying that veteran officers are not valuable, but I am saying is that officers who have retired, and then returned to service to collect both a pension and salary are not (in my experience) working twice as hard.
These three major topics are just a sampling of issues that need to be addressed so that the viability of our policing service can continue, unabated by historical and fundamental changes. I admit there are many facets to our national economic situation and even if what were mentioned above were solved for the better there still remains hundreds of local issues facing our local and state agencies. There is no perfect or easy solution, but waiting for the bottom to drop out is not the answer either. There are approximately 600,000 police officers in the U.S. and we can either become involved in the active role of trying to determine our future or many of our Brothers and Sisters in Blue will be directed to an unsightly end. Let's get our politicians to start listening to us rather than us being told what they decide without our direct involvement. But, first, we need to talk to one another about the tough choices.