Could a civilian do YOUR job?

Every student of criminal justice has heard of Sir Robert Peel, the father of modern policing. In 1829, Peel initiated the legislation that would create the London Metro Police. Since that time, police agencies have grown in scope and effect. Today, everyone from Scotland Yard to the Federal Bureau of Investigation owes a tip of the hat to Sir Robert for the efforts that turned policing into the profession it is today.

But police work is anything but static and circumstances in some areas have sparked growing privatization of services formerly performed by sworn officers to become more and more prevalent. With money tight and both taxpayers and government looking to make the most of the limited resources available, privatization may be an inevitable move. Any duties assumable by civilians may be privatized, at what may be a considerable savings to government agencies. This is a trend I believe police should embrace, not fight.

Most government managers hate to let go of anything, even tasks that are loathsome, costly and unproductive. Department heads traditionally spend out the remainder of their funds as the end of the budget year nears so they don’t “lose” anything in the next budget year. And they give ground very grudgingly, not wanting to shed any responsibilities because it also often translates to a reduction in force. These tactics are no longer valid or acceptable in this age of government downsizing.

Government is pinched for money and the taxpayers are pretty insistent that they’re tapped out. With more emphasis on paring down government, reducing the burden on the average taxpayer and simplifying what we already have in place, privatization of certain aspects of policing seems the next logical step.

This issue carries an interesting piece on the privatization of a dispatch operation (“Same job, different boss,”), but that’s not the only type of service trending towards privatization.

The forerunner of today’s police is private security. That some of those duties are being returned to the private or civilian realm isn’t really that surprising. It’s the natural evolution of the beast.

What highly trained, well-educated, sworn officer enjoys work completed just as well by private security? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against private security because I think they serve a valid function, but police work requires a different degree of expertise.
Agency heads are always short on good personnel. I’ve never heard one complain that he or she is overstaffed. Thus, it makes sense that if handing off tasks to civilians would free up skilled officers to concentrate on more serious issues, agencies would jump on the idea.

No, we don’t like to lose personnel in the process and sometimes that’s what happens. Agencies that reroute services to the private sector rarely see them come back, but there’s also another alternative to privatization: Keep the task within the department but fill the position with civilians.

Of course, this solution only works when the task is one already completed by sworn officers. It wouldn’t apply to dispatch or other auxiliary services, but for taking phone reports, handling nonviolent incidents such as property damage, processing crime scenes or dealing with crime prevention, some departments may find that positioning civilians within its ranks is not only cheaper, but frees up its sworn officers to concentrate on more high profile matters.

Is privatization or civilianizing some aspects of police work a step back in time, as some might postulate? I don’t believe so. Instead, I like to look at it as the natural evolution of the process, a process we keep refining and changing until we get it perfectly right.