Perhaps in no other industry is it tougher to discern where to scale back in hard times. In law enforcement, a troubled economy breeds budget cuts … which in turn lead to the discontinuing of services and in some cases, a leaner force. Do you settle for less? Go without? If so, it can come at a cost to both the community and the officers themselves. It is crucial that, once a budget lay on the table, departments find ways to cut carefully and spend wisely. If successful, everyday operations are less likely to suffer.
One way to stretch dollars and collect additional revenue is by embracing technology. Agencies who find it tedious and costly to hold auctions now have the ability to go online and let someone else do the work. Sites like PropertyRoom.com are designed to take the hassle out of police auctions, cut out middle men and deliver maximum returns. PropertyRoom.com, founded by former Long Beach, New York Police Department detective Tom Lane, does business with a number of agencies around the country. "The way I see it, we haul away problems and send back money," says PropertyRoom.com CEO P.J. Bellomo.
The consignment service trucks show up, pick up any property and evidence room items, sell them and return the check. They make monthly calls to inquire whether a department has anything to get rid of, and when PropertyRoom.com reps may arrive for pick-up.
Agencies can also turn to the Web for smarter purchasing at places like CopBids.com, an eBay-style site that lets members buy and sell equipment in a "law enforcement-only" setting. And the more users who sign on, the better the deals.
"During my 10 years as an officer I'd realized I'd accumulated a substantial amount of equipment that was still usable and in good condition," say CopBids.com founder Joe Fleres. "I was wondering what would be a great way to help others." The site launched on September 3, 2008, and since then, has accumulated about 330 more users.
"The timing couldn't be better, with police facing cuts due to the economy," says Fleres. He encourages vets to post their used equipment and help the "new guys" who are faced with having to buy their own. "Salaries are low, so it helps them and it helps the other guy put some money in their pockets as well."
Traversing cyber markets is one way to quell price-tag shock and get rid of goods. But agencies are also seeking out grants, using existing resources smarter, turning to the community and finding other ways to keep operations strong — even as the duty belt tightens.
Here, six high-ranking officials respond to the state of the economy, and describe how they are staying vigilant in order to uphold their highest standards.The roundtable participants…
LET: How are current economic conditions impacting your operations, in terms of budget cuts and purchasing equipment?
CHIEF JIM HYDE: We were asked by our city manager to prepare 2-percent and 5-percent non-personnel budget reductions for our department. So we are under a hiring freeze, except for police officers, and we're currently planning for a 12- to 18-month recessionary period.
CAPTAIN DAVID KIDDLE: [Cuts] obviously make it difficult as you go throughout the year and you've got a chunk of money set aside for various things. Not purchasing doesn't always work; we put things out to bid and hope to get a low price, but at the same time we're either deciding not to purchase certain things now or wait.
CHIEF DEPUTY HILMAN POPILLION: It's true you can't cut too many corners in law enforcement; you can only go so far. We're shopping with different vendors to find out where we can get the best equipment for the lower price.
DEPUTY CHIEF VINCE GORTNER: Some of it just ends up being a reduction in discretionary spending ... things that are just nice to have. Things we really need to have, like Kevlar vests and vehicles, we're going to keep buying to make sure we continue to provide the level of service we need to provide to the community and to keep our officers safe.
CHIEF DAVE PECK: I usually allow commanders of each unit to give me a wish list, and then we prioritize those lists for different types of equipment: in-car cameras, radios, things like that ... but I've instructed my commanders to give me a very bare-bones budget to be met — contractual obligations, vehicles replacements and equipment maintenance that we already have in a maintenance and repair line. Other than that, I've instructed them not to put in for anything new.
LET: Do you currently buy or sell items online, or would you?
HYDE: Yes, and we're doing more online shopping to reduce travel cost and increase deals.
KIDDLE: Our history's not that we've bought used equipment to this extent. But we'd certainly be more inclined to [buy used] with a bigger pool and a bigger number of items to obviously lower the price.
LET: What are some other ways you plan to cut costs in day-to-day practices?
HYDE: We're moving to more regional operations to share and reduce costs, such as regional dispatching, cell phone vendors (a larger group equals a better rate) ... we're also renting our firearms range out to other agencies. We're doing more in-house training and asking businesses to donate supplies like ammo, paper, electrical work, etc., to offset budget reductions. And we're bartering with vendors. Vendors are more willing to barter now than a month ago.
CHIEF TONY BARTHULY: Our recent purchases have been more cameras and computers, as we're really trying to go the technology side of things — for example, keeping officers on the road by using Wi-Fi. If an officer needs to take a report he can now do it in his squad; this also increases visibility.
Besides that we've gone more to the community for things like our K-9 unit and bicycle helmet safety programs. We're asking the community to partner with us, and those efforts have been successful. I think people do want to help when they can. You hear things especially about Internet safety or children, and people are always willing to help out.
LET: What does the future look like to you?
GORTNER: Certainly we're preparing for the possibility that things are going to get worse. And if they are, it could change a lot of things.
KIDDLE: We're hoping for increased funding and support especially from the state level, where we've had a lot of our state revenue sharing cut. In the next few months we'll start preparing our 2010 budget. Within the next year we'll probably see some cuts again.
PECK: We're cognizant of what's going on in the world, what's going on in the economy ... and when we go through our processes we're just going to be very bare bones about it.
BARTHULY: Things are getting tighter; training money's getting tighter. If the economy stays the way it is, we'll probably be asked to do more with less again. Hopefully technology and new innovations in police work will help us get through that.