In the ongoing budgetary crises that have become endemic in local government, law enforcement agencies find themselves facing unprecedented challenges. I wrote about this in last month's column, but it's such an important issue, with agency and career-changing effects attached to it, that I want to take another look at it.
We all know that money is tighter than it's been in most of our lifetimes. In the recent past, law enforcement officers have been virtually immune from job loss due to economic downturns. In fact, the security of a law enforcement position was about the only thing a potential police officer could count on. Things have changed and, from the looks of it, they're not getting better.
When I wrote this column, I was shaking my head at the news that the town of Fitchburg, Mass., demoted police officers to save money and lessen the likelihood of police layoffs. In addition, news reports at the time stated 12 dispatchers were let go, and nine police officers were reassigned to dispatch. The department had to ditch both its traffic and drug divisions, and had gone from 94 members to 80. Things may have changed since these initial reports, but I doubt the Fitchburg Police remain unaffected.
Demotions are a horrible, counterproductive idea that no city manager should encourage. In fact, to take a rank that an officer has worked hard to reach and demote that officer in order to save money is nothing short of demeaning, and a lousy payback for a lifetime of service to a community.
I realize times are tight and government on all levels needs to rethink its spending habits. No longer can the public well be considered bottomless, or public dollars expendable. This is a real crisis and law enforcement isn't going to emerge unscathed. But I also think there are better ways to save money. Here are a few of the questions I have about this cataclysmic tendency:
Do town officials receive pay or other financial-based consideration (like health insurance) for serving on boards? I think cutting or even doing away with compensation for such service makes better sense than demoting police officers. For cities where serving on a board is the equivalent of a full-time job, then I suggest a demotion is in order: Pay them less.
How many positions have been cut in other departments? While I understand the importance of planners and administration, police protection is simply not negotiable. Cutting police protection is sacrificing safety. To me it's a no-brainer. How many police jobs can be saved by chopping some of the fat in the city, town or county manager's office?
Are cities or counties still forging ahead with capital improvement projects? If yes, then stop. Anything capital-improvement oriented belongs to another time and another budget, in my opinion.
How are city hall and other public buildings being furnished or decorated? What about Christmas decorations, new cars, planting flowers? These are all nice but police are necessary; wreaths on telephone poles are not.
Are departments - police included - returning unspent money? If not, then they should have been doing so for years. Make it happen. I've been in government and I know there is always something left over. This is one of my pet peeves because I think spending out your budget unnecessarily is a violation of the public trust.
Are the bureaucrats who run the city or county administration taking pay cuts? What about additional positions? Adding anything else to payroll should be a no-no.
I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I believe police departments should pare down to their best fighting weights. The budget crunch only hurts the taxpayers when it starts impacting boots on the ground. Demoting and cutting sworn officers should not be an option.
Carole Moore has served in and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.