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.

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.

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