When Good Cops Go to War

About a third of the sworn officers in Athens, Ohio, are either probationary employees, still riding with a field training officer, on extended leave or reactivated military. It's enough to keep Police Chief Rick Mayer awake at night.

"It is very stressful," Mayer admits.

Athens, a college town in southeastern Ohio located about an hour away from the capital of Columbus, could use more police officers. And the town's governing board realized this because Mayer will receive two additional slots in the next budget, bringing the total number of sworn officers to 28.

While authorizing two additional bodies in uniform looks good on paper, filling those positions and keeping them filled with experienced officers isn't such an easy task. For, as long as the U.S. Armed Forces keeps activating reservists, departments that employ them, like Mayer's, will be strained to the breaking point.

Loss of officers to active duty military impacts law enforcement agencies both in delivery of services and budgets. How are agencies responding to the intersection of growing responsibilities with dwindling manpower? The answers are as hard to come by as qualified officer candidates.

The USERRA effect

When the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA) was signed into law, the moving force behind it was protecting the best interests of those called up to defend this country. Ironically, over time it transformed from benevolent legislation designed to strengthen the military and preserve the jobs of workers ordered to active duty, to an expensive liability for employers — particularly in the fields of emergency response.

USERRA guarantees military call-ups won't come at too great a personal expense to the employee. It's meant to protect the employee's rights, while simultaneously allow the military to replenish its supply of troops. USERRA mandates employers maintain the service member's job and benefits while he or she is serving in the military. It also prohibits hiring discrimination against applicants who also serve as reservists and protects those with disabilities.

No one argues that USERRA isn't needed. National defense, especially in the post 9/11 climate, trumps all other considerations. And, without a pool of reservists willing to serve when called up, the military could find itself with enormous problems.

Even though USERRA protects the country's ability to maintain its armed forces at a level consistent with need, it ironically makes its partners in national defense and the War on Terror more vulnerable by taking skilled and critically important law enforcement officers away from their civilian jobs.

While the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan remain heated, and other parts of the world such as North Korea and Iran begin to boil with dark potential, local and state law enforcement agencies scurry to keep their ranks supplied.

It's not easy being blue

Almost every law enforcement agency in the United States has been affected by USERRA. The law's impact, however, depends on the size of the agency and how many officers are diverted to the military.

Part of the problem stems from traditional close ties between the military and law enforcement. For years, agencies have targeted the U.S. Armed Forces as prime hunting grounds for new recruits. It makes perfect sense; the military ingrains an understanding of chain of command, the ability to respond to dangerous situations both instantaneously and instinctively, and a knowledge of weapons and their use.

Former military have a high success rate in law enforcement careers for all the reasons mentioned above. Additionally, they possess the right mindset — an appreciation of physical readiness and courage. Since they are predisposed to work well within a criminal justice structure, they often enjoy long and fruitful post-military careers as sworn officers.

There's another side to hiring former military, however; many are reservists. While serving in the military reserves is a noble and crucial sacrifice on the part of the reservist, agencies with a significant number on their duty rosters are finding when the tough get going, they're left scrambling for bodies.

So it follows that the bigger the department, the more statistically likely it is to have large numbers of reservists. This isn't a case of "the bigger they are, the harder they fall," because this is one time when size matters in a completely different way. In other words, the smaller the department, the harder hit it will be by reservist deployments.

Small-town departments with less than a dozen sworn face serious staffing shortages when even one officer reports for military duty. Mammoth departments such as the New York Police Department and many large state agencies don't feel the manpower pinch quite as radically as towns like Athens, but the big boys certainly share the financial pain of smaller jurisdictions.

New York City's governing officials were moved to protect its employees following the attacks on the World Trade Center by enacting an Extended Military Benefits Package. The package, which critics charge was not well thought out, was supposed to protect the jobs of city employees called up to active duty.

Under its provisions, those employees could retain their benefits and either their military or city pay, whichever was greater. The catch was, that at the end of deployment, the lesser salary was owed, either to the city, or military.

Problems arose when some of the city's number crunchers decided it was time to collect from officers who'd returned from active duty and resumed their careers at the NYPD. New York demanded not the net paycheck employees received, but the gross amount before taxes and other deductions were removed. The city also lumped in the value of housing and meals.

To say it's a stretch to attach a value to temporary quarters and military rations in the middle of a war zone is an understatement. But since many of those affected were in Iraq and Afghanistan, that's what happened.

After enough returned military employees complained, city officials were embarrassed into retracting their demand for compensation of housing and food from overseas.

But employees still have to pony up the money withheld from their military checks (taxes and other deductions), and that's problematic since not only do they have to pay the city money they never actually received, it's also a good bet they won't get it back. For most, the deadline for filing amended tax returns has already passed.

New York City officials were undoubtedly motivated by the best of intentions when they set their plan into motion. In addition to the accounting headache and personal financial drama created by this situation, it also burdened the city to the tune of about $75 million, and the full bill isn't in yet.

The NYPD, like every other law enforcement agency in the country, has to hold open the positions vacated by officers who've been shipped out. Of course, as a department with more than 37,000 employees, NYPD doesn't suffer like smaller agencies. Those departments face nightmare scheduling problems and less interaction with the public.

The financial burdens incurred by USERRA-impacted jurisdictions are bound to eventually surface in the budgets of local agencies — maybe not now, but certainly down the road.

Meanwhile, back in Ohio

The permanent population of the city of Athens is less than the number of employees on the roster of the NYPD. And even though Athens won't see the kind of budgetary crash and burn experienced by a city the size of the Big Apple, it's one of those things that common sense says will only grow worse over time.

In Athens' case, Mayer has two officers on active-duty status with the military and another out on extended leave. Since another five are in training or still green, that leaves Mayer running a 26-man department with 18 officers doing the work of a full complement.

If this chief reaches for the Excedrin when he finally manages to crawl in bed each night, it's because he knows it's impossible to do the kind of job needed when shorthanded, especially since the missing officers are supervisory personnel.

Mayer can't keep the weariness out of his voice when he discusses the manpower shortage his department's facing. "We adjusted the shifts," he says. "We used to have four shifts." The extra shift relieved others so they'd have time off.

"We had to go to three shifts with staggered days off," Mayer said. The end result, of course, means less officers on the road and more overtime hours.

But the need for overtime cannot be contested. When the department's working at full staffing capacity, officers can opt to burn overtime as compensatory time off or be paid. Now the rule is no extra time off. In fact, many officers are lucky to get any time off.

It's also impacted the Athens police in other ways. Mayer mourns the task force memberships the department had to pass on because there were simply not enough officers to staff them. And, even with the help of other jurisdictions who move in to back up or, sometimes, pair up with Athens police, those at the top are overlooking some bleak days ahead.

"We've tried to work with a reserve force," Mayer says, adding that most candidates interested in becoming a police reserve found themselves put off by the time investment.

Policing a college town like Athens, the location of Ohio University, is never without its challenges. But challenges like the ones the Athens PD are facing today, Mayer could do without.

For smaller departments, the future resembles a Western where the hero looks at the horizon and sees a wave of the enemy preparing to swoop down. Matt Hickman, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U. S. Department of Justice, says that unfortunately there's no cavalry to ride to the rescue.

Let us count the ways

Hickman, who holds a doctorate, affirms that the smaller the agency, the worse the impact from USERRA. He talks about one two-man department in a little community where one officer was called back to active duty by the military, leaving the remaining officer to handle the job alone.

Although the remaining officer could call in state agencies when circumstances dictated it, even the day-to-day business of policing can be overwhelming with no relief.

"In this case they contracted with a deputy for backup," Hickman says. As for hard evidence on how deployments affect agencies under USERRA, he says, "In a national sense there's no data showing how much strain there is where the rubber hits the road."

However, it's easy to extrapolate from past experience, Hickman says. Common sense tells that an agency impacted significantly by military deployments will have lower clearance rates. Since USERRA compels agencies to hold open positions vacated by officers called to active duty, agency heads find themselves on the horns of a dilemma that doesn't seem to have a solution. They can't fill the slot, and leaving it unfilled results in a less effective department.

It's bad news all around and, according to Hickman, only going to get worse. Not only has federal funding for block grants like the COPS program been slashed, effectively amputating one possible source of new officers, but until the reserve forces stand down and return to their civilian posts, there's always the possibility an agency will lose more officers to the Department of Defense.

Hickman also points out another hiccup that makes management bluer than the uniforms they issue. When the threat level rises, it translates into more officers on the street. That means more overtime, which costs more. Like the song that never ends, the conundrum of deploying enough officers to do the job with less and less money goes on and on.

One day, the buck will stop right at the sheriff or chief's door as local and state governments cut budgets, but their constituency still expects the same level of service.

The volcano's edge

Mike Yaniero, chief of the Jacksonville (North Carolina) Police Department, sits on the edge of a volcano. Right now it's dormant, but Yaniero knows that it wouldn't take much to blow the doors off his agency.

That's because Jacksonville PD has a very high number of former military and military reservists in its officer ranks — much more than the ordinary department. And it has something else, too — officers who are also military dependents.

The high inventory of military-connected officers isn't surprising when taking Jacksonville's location into account. Situated on the coastal area of eastern North Carolina, the city's 110 sworn officers police a beat that's right outside the door to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Marine Corps Air Station New River and several training areas. Up the road a bit is Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. The town is populated with military-connected families.

The Jacksonville PD has always found a wealth of talent in its military-related applicants. Even though the department has a much higher than average association with the military and is almost always down 10 to 15 positions, the town as of this writing has no officers that fall under USERRA protection.

When the city loses military dependents who are also officers, they tend to leave for good, due to a spouse being deployed overseas or transferred. Yaniero says the department has lost a couple of officers to military contractors and a few others who, when facing military reactivation, chose to quit the police force altogether and take another road. "Their thing was, if they're going to go to Iraq again and they face another recall, they might as well go ahead and re-enlist," Yaniero says.

Yaniero, however, also has a built-in safety net for deployments that's one of those good news-bad news things: the turnover at the Jacksonville PD is so great that even if a large number of military reservists were called up from within the agency, the vacancy rate runs so high the department wouldn't have to hold a job open. Officers leave Jacksonville PD for all the usual reasons — more money, change of career, to relocate.

"Because of such turnover, we will have a vacancy when they come back," he says.

At this department, approximately 50 percent of the its sworn personnel are former military, with another 10 percent military dependents. Yaniero's relieved that, at least for the moment, he's not dealing with officers recalled to service, yet lingering on the books. He knows not to crow to loudly. This is a business that could change in the time it takes to squeeze the trigger.

Always a loser

Reserves called up for deployment to war zones typically aren't thrilled about it, but they're filling an important position. That's why USERRA was created. Without it, the reserve levels would plummet and filling military ranks could revert back to the days of conscripted or mandatory service.

Criminal justice practitioners know that, and like the discipline and dedication the military bring to their jobs. It's the uncut umbilical cord that runs between these officers and the military that removes some of the luster from these hires.

And while no real solution is in sight, most agree that when the federal government mandates legislation that saps a department's finances or manpower, they should, at the very least, not cut the few programs that could actually help even things out.