This year I went to my first city council meeting. A local department was facing more budget cuts and job lay-offs due to the economic downturn and, up until now, many of the reductions that have already occurred focused on non-sworn positions and the elimination of services that benefited, but had been deemed non-essential to, the community. Now sworn positions were in jeopardy for an already understaffed and overworked department. As sympathetic citizens and representatives of sworn personnel argued for the continued level of current staffing, the city council saw an entirely different side to the arguments presented. What I witnessed was a city council and a police department severely at odds. Granted, in the best of times, local government and law enforcement has an often adversarial relationship, but with the economic downturn peace officers as well as fire services are fighting for their jobs.
One of the reasons I believe the city council was at odds with public safety employees is their knowledge and outlook is more rooted in the private sector that has been experiencing the economic downturn since shortly after September 11, 2001. The lasting impact of that day sent ripples into our economy that hit many businesses hard. Combined with the effects of a massive economic recession that followed, almost all businesses have felt the hit, with many failing outright and others struggling to stay afloat. Even the most recession proof careers have been fighting for survival. I know; I have been changing the way I approach my practice since 2005. I have learned as a self-employed health care professional I have to work harder, get paid less, and be more creative to stay ahead of the economy.
September 11, 2001 had a different effect on law enforcement, at least for awhile. You were needed, desired, and respect was renewed. You were seen as heroes. No one could justify a reduction in peace officers when we had fears of terrorism and anthrax packages being delivered in the mail. People were fearful and they wanted to feel safe. They wanted to see you on their streets. However, times have changed and now people are fighting to keep their jobs, their homes, and food on their tables. Memories are short when public opinion is changing and people are fighting for basic survival and downsizing their own lives.
Another reason I saw opposition between the city council and the police officers was the private sector relies on quantifiable measures to justify which positions to keep or eliminate. This is easy in the private sector because it is measured in profit and loss. It is a numbers game. Does this position earn or lose money? Companies evaluate where they can trim the fat and then cut away without sentimentality. Those of us in the private sector have learned we need to be willing to do more for the same or less money to justify our jobs to employers. We need to prove that our cost is beneficial.
So how does this translate over to peace officers, since much of what you do is not quantifiable by empirical evidence? Even quantifiable measures are inconclusive and incomplete, such as the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) which is a voluntary nationwide view of crime based on the submission of statistics by law enforcement agencies across the country. Many calls or crimes an officer responds to are not included in the UCR such as alarm calls, disorderly conducts, or identity theft, as well as innumerable others that not routinely reported. And how do you quantify the crimes that never happened because you were being aggressively proactive, or maybe even simply because you write your reports in your car in the parking lots of businesses that have had increases in retail theft? It is a double-edged sword when doing your job effectively means crime has decreased. How do you explain that to those who only see the bottom line? I think you have a difficult job ahead of you educating the voting public and local governments about what you do and justifiable staffing requirements. I believe your challenge is going to be providing evidence based solutions rather than emotional arguments to support the need for public safety positions.
Those of us in the private sector have learned to adapt by producing more. Again, how does this translate for those whose job it is to serve and protect? Will producing more create a public backlash? Sure, writing more tickets produces a measurable amount of activity but when does it become unproductive in the sense of public opinion? Will you end up alienating the public voter because they feel harassed? Or continue the public opinion that you have nothing better to do? It is going to be a delicate balance of educating the public about who you are and the job you perform without making your presence resented.
There is another challenge you face as you present your justification for continued staffing as peace officers. The private sector often does not have the same protection as union employees, of which many of you in public safety are. Those of us in the private sector often do not understand where you are coming from when you talk about labor rights and protection. Instead of coming across as a sound argument it comes across as entitlement or ignorance of how the real world operates. Unions came into existence to protect employees from the unfair & unjust practices of management and that remains one of their essential roles today. The people who can either save or eliminate your jobs most likely are not protected by a union. Be aware of how your justifications come across to those in the private sector for their way of approaching their jobs is completely different than union employees. If you are part of a union or collective bargaining unit, take care to educate the public about its importance and role, and how it benefits you and the community. It needs to translate or it will alienate.
One last item I want to encourage you to do, is to not let the current political and economic environment have a negative effect on how you approach your job each day. When people work in what they perceive to be a negative environment, often a decrease in productivity follows. Be intentional about being in control of your mood and that others perceive you as productive and that you want to be with your agency. If the civilian world perceives you as not wanting to be at your job, they may begin to think they do not need you. Be careful about how you present yourself to the public and to your fellow officers. And because being a police officer is not just what you do, it is who you are, remember any proposed changes are not personal; it is business people implementing approaches that are logical in the civilian world. I know they do not translate to peace officers, but Joe Public has no real idea what you do. It is your job, your mandate, to educate him in a manner he understands.