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The Money Crunch: Brother, Can You Spare a Few Mil?

Finding funding is becoming harder for law enforcement agencies, but it's not impossible.

November 01, 2004  |  by - Also by this author

When Oregon laid off 139 of its state troopers and 300 employees total in one day, the already spread thin department was left with few officers to police the state, while the crime labs that process evidence for all Oregon law enforcement agencies were all but shut down.

Funding for the Oregon State Police has been mostly restored to where it was in 2003 before the mass layoffs, but that doesn't mean the same thing couldn't happen again. In fact, a repeat was narrowly avoided this year. And the number of state troopers currently employed in Oregon is only half of what it was 20 years ago when the state population was only half as large.

"We're just now back to the crisis mode we were in before the layoffs," says Superintendent Ron Ruecker, who heads the Oregon State Police. And his agency is not alone.

With continued budget woes following 9/11, the Oregon State Police and most law enforcement agencies across the country are struggling to do more with less. Some have come up with innovative ways to supplement grants and other forms of funding so they can continue to serve the public as best they can.

Crisis and Opportunity

Chief James Montgomery of the Bellevue (Wash.) Police Department has an optimistic view of the current budget crunch.

"I'm a firm believer that tight financial times often are the genesis for creative ideas. If you're flushed with money, the tendency is just to sort of continue to do business as usual."

In fact, many law enforcement agencies are using the current budget crunch as an impetus to conserve resources and to develop new efficient programs that might not otherwise have seen the light of day. They focus on mitigating the outflow of money and maximizing opportunities for revenue.

Chief Craig Steckler of the Fremont (Calif.) Police Department has a practical outlook. He believes the most important thing to keep in mind is the essential job at hand. "You need to look at what your absolute core mission is and protect that," he says.

Right now, for the Fremont PD that means answering the calls that absolutely require an officer on the scene to maintain citizens' safety.

Steckler has lost 52 positions at his department. Now 188 officers are left to serve a population of 209,000. "To do that I laid off seven police officers that were just finishing the academy," he says.

But the chief feels he and his department are doing their best to serve the public while operating at a "critical minimum."

One way Fremont PD has managed to stay afloat and service its city has been through innovative approaches to resource use. An online reporting system put in place just months ago has automated the process of taking crime reports from citizens for many non-emergency crimes. This has freed up a lot of officers to respond to higher priority calls.

Because the Internet reporting software directly interfaces with the department's CAD system, the necessary information appears in the proper form immediately. There's no need for staff to do additional data entry after the fact.

"We're getting up to 50 or 60 reports per day online," says Steckler. "It's a cost saving but it's also a customer service benefit."

Hoping for the Best

At the Garden Grove (Calif.) Police Department, Chief Joseph Polisar has seen things go from bad to worse.

"For the last 10 years or so, local and state law enforcement has become accustomed to receiving assistance at the federal level in the form of local law enforcement block grants and COPS money. Those funding sources have quickly dried up in the past few years," he says.

Polisar is doing his best to convince the federal government to reverse the flow of finances.

As president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Polisar led a group of chiefs in February who met on Capitol Hill in Washington to try to convince Congress to restore some of the funding it had cut from law enforcement grants. While Polisar says he understands that homeland security is important and deserves its own funding, he doesn't want to see police departments handicapped by a lack of funding for basic necessities not covered under Homeland Security grants.

The group of chiefs had one simple request for Congress, albeit one that will be difficult to grant: "Just don't rob Peter to pay Paul. And that's what we see happening," says Polisar.

While the fate of federal funding for law enforcement's non-homeland security concerns remains undecided, Garden Grove PD is making do with its current resources.

In fact, the department has realized amazing savings and improved efficiency by privatizing its inhouse booking facility. Because Garden Grove PD doesn't have its own jail, it must transport suspects to either the Orange County Jail or another city's holding facility. Stopping to book suspects at the Garden Grove station and then driving them to a jail, often in gridlocked traffic, took police officers off of the street for an average of two hours.

Now, civilians take over custody of suspects at the station and complete the booking process, taking fingerprints and mug shots. The same private company then transports the suspects to the appropriate jail. This leaves Garden Grove officers free to get back on the beat once they drop off a suspect at the booking facility.

Polisar says this process, begun four years ago, saves the department an enormous amount of time and money, effectively putting four more officers on the street.

"The officers love it," says Polisar, "because they're no longer tied up for more than two hours just getting an arrested person into the system. Now they're done in 15 minutes and they're back on the street."

Of course, Polisar admits, this is only a cost-saving solution if your agency already has its own booking facility. For his department, this was the best way to boost finances using already existing resources.

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