In the summer of 2008, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) conducted a poll of 200 police departments and found that 39 percent of respondents said their operating budgets were cut because of the declining economy. A further 43 percent of departments reported that the faltering economy had affected their ability to deliver services.
That sounds bad. But here's the kicker. This poll was taken before the current economic meltdown, before the stock market plummeted and the banks and auto companies went hat in hand to Congress begging for bailouts.
For those in law enforcement, the question becomes one of: How does all of this economic gloom affect me? To address this question, POLICE decided to look at five of the biggest economic threats facing law enforcement.
1) Your Training Budget Will Be Cut
"When the economy goes downhill, one of the first things to get cut is usually training," says Sgt. Brian Muller of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
"Unfortunately, it usually ends up costing us more in the long haul. The LAPD MacArthur Park incident of May 2006 is a prime example. Some shortsighted higher up decided to cut civil disorder training for Metro in the months preceding the MacArthur Park protests. It resulted in a situation where Metro personnel that had never been trained in handling civil disorder problems ended up dealing with protesters at the park. This proved disastrous both at a public relations level and at a litigation level.
"It's one of those pay now or pay later situations," cautions Muller. "You pay now; you know it's going to cost you 'X' number of dollars. Sometimes people will look at that and say, 'We'll just cut that dollar amount right there.' They end up rolling the dice and hoping that nothing will happen. Then something bad happens.'
"And just because a budget has been compromised because of the economy, doesn't mean you're not going to be sued because of an incident whose roots can be traced back to budget cuts," Muller warns.
Reconciling the need to protect themselves from liability while still being able to manage their budgets has found many law enforcement agencies leaning on the federal government for support. But monies once readily available through Clinton administration grants have been diverted to military campaigns and matters of homeland security.
We may well be entering an era where it'll be increasingly incumbent upon the individual officer to subsidize his own training, on his own dime and his own time. Another option is to consolidate training among agencies.
2) You Could Get Canned (If Not, You'll Work Harder)
Historically, law enforcement has been a recession-insulated profession, relatively speaking. After all, maintaining social order becomes increasingly difficult when large numbers of people lose their jobs and homes.
Professor Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis's department of criminology and criminal justice notes, "Every recession since the late 1950s has been associated with an increase in crime and, in particular, property crime and robbery."
Such realities ensure that the worse things get, the more cops are needed.
Still, in bad times, many agencies cut positions through attrition. They don't hire new cops to replace retirees and other officers who leave the job. Already, agencies such as the New York City Police Department have initiated hiring freezes and canceled academy classes.
NYPD is not the only agency decimating its ranks. As of September, 367 Chicago officers had retired or resigned, with less than a third of that number hired to replace them. Worse still, more officers and civilians stand to be laid off in 2009, exacerbating the lack of backfill. And Chicago is not alone. Atlanta isn't filling 53 job vacancies.
Layoffs of sworn personnel are also happening, especially for those most recently hired at the most cash-strapped agencies.
In late December, despite vocal protests by the local citizenry, the city of Muskegon Heights, Mich., voted to lay off six of its officers. Some 79 Connecticut State Police officers—eight percent of the agency's work force—became Christmas Eve casualties of the economy.
In this economy, officers left on the job will probably be working much harder and maybe for much less.
What's happening in Vallejo, Calif., offers a cautionary example. Given that 80 percent of its general fund budget is committed to the salaries and pensions of its active and retired police and fire personnel, the city became the first in California's history to file for bankruptcy. In the wake of falling tax revenues, rising payrolls, and depressed housing markets, it probably won't be the last. As of November, the Not-So-Golden State cities of Rio Vista and Isleton were considering similar measures.
"It's hard to know what cities that are in receivership will do with their law enforcement," says Rosenfeld. "Typically when that happens, law enforcement functions in that city are taken over by the county or by the adjacent jurisdiction; sometimes by the state. I would imagine that would happen in those places that are suffering significant budget woes right now."
The economy and the shortage of officers are spurring many agencies to explore the use of non-sworn personnel to support their missions.
The Gilroy (Calif.) Police Department has deposited its graffiti abatement upon the shoulders of a largely civilian unit. Meanwhile, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department is finding greater use of its deputy sheriff reserves.
"The department is realizing that the reserve force is an excellent resource, not just for the purpose of filling a car, although we do that," notes Mike Leum, an administrative services manager with the department who is also its Reserve Chief of Search and Rescue.
"Reserves bring with them their professional skills from the private sector. They are not only filling a seat in a car, but also providing technical expertise. The varied skill sets of these reserves—be it computer expertise, legal, or accounting—find them assisting in investigations or in setting up Websites, all types of different things. Otherwise, the department would have to go outside and do a contract with somebody at pretty great expense."
Leum says the labors of the reserves make for a huge savings for the department. "Last year, over 192,000 hours of work was donated by 850 reserves. That's a savings to the county of $5 million to $6 million," he explains.
3) You Will Do More with Less Stuff
You might hope that monies saved on the staffing front might be spent on logistical support for law enforcement. But don't bet on it. Doing more with less is becoming a de facto service motto for many a police agency.
The Shreveport (La.) Police Department has postponed the purchase of 59 new police cars, making it one of many agencies planning to keep patrol vehicles in the field longer than it would have years ago. The Ohio State Highway Patrol has also cut back on buying new patrol cars and postponed acquiring video cameras and other equipment.
And then there's gas. Fortunately, the price has gone down. Unfortunately, a lot of agencies got hurt last summer when fuel topped $4 per gallon. And they are still trying to find ways to cut back on fuel expenses.
The Sacramento (Calif.) Police Department started doubling up more of its officers in patrol cars to maintain the number of active officers in the field while simultaneously cutting back on the number of patrol cars deployed, thereby saving gas as well as wear and tear on the cars. Other departments have increased foot patrols and have expanded bicycle units.
Growing public demand for policing and an erosion of federal grants has conspired against the best intentions of many agencies on other fronts. Some, such as the New York State Police Department, have their hands full dealing with less than optimal communications systems.
And it isn't only police radios that can use an upgrade. Many police departments are dealing with difficulties getting 911 calls routed to appropriate law enforcement jurisdictions. While the FCC has ruled that commercial providers such as Verizon and Sprint must make technological upgrades available to accommodate such transitions, it's up to 911 emergency centers to foot the bill.
To add or maintain specific services and equipment, more and more agencies may soon start angling for gifts from local businesses and civic groups.
When the Bayonne (N.J.) Police Department's defibrillator required new parts, Chief Robert Kubert made an open appeal for donations. Other departments have made successful appeals for other gear, equipment, and even K-9s.
Unfortunately, this won't help agencies in states whose infrastructures have been seriously damaged through natural disasters—such as post-Katrina Louisiana and Mississippi—that will have even greater difficulty finding financial support through donations or elsewhere. In areas where insurance rates have tripled, many residents and businesses have moved elsewhere, further eroding an already stretched tax base.
The foreclosure epidemic will also continue to have serious short-term and long-term implications for law enforcement agencies in need of funding. This, as record numbers of foreclosures displace families from homes while simultaneously diminishing the property values of others, and thereby hurting property tax revenues for the state.
4) You Will Worry More About Empty Houses
Sacramento (Calif.) County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Habecker has acquired an unanticipated expertise in foreclosures. Whereas evictions once constituted a negligible portion of his workload, they have now become the focus of Habecker's tour of duty.
"We used to do one (bank eviction) a month and maybe 12 all year," Habecker, one of a six-man eviction team, told the Sacramento Bee. "I have 10 in my stack today just for me, and there's six of us."
Evictions are just the beginning of a growing problem for officers like Habecker. Among the spin-off problems created by the foreclosure epidemic are officers saddled with having to police vacant homes for squatters, vandals, thieves, partying teenagers, and worse. Abandoned structures can become secondary hideouts for criminals. Aside from having many of their appliances and hardwood floors uprooted, many of these structures are also exploited for everything from transient trysts, to gang summits, to marijuana cultivation.
A different kind of displacement issue looms elsewhere. Nationwide, cities' mental health programs have taken huge multi-million dollar hits.
"Mental health facilities are having to turn away clients; social service agencies' budgets are being cut. That's going to pose additional problems for law enforcement," says Rosenfeld. "It's going to mean that people are on the streets without adequate shelter or services, in some cases medication. Law enforcement is often considered the last resort for social service agencies. When social services are cut, law enforcement often has to fill the breach. I think there's another set of factors that is going to make it more difficult for law enforcement over the next year."
5) You Will See More Crime and More Violence
In his Depression-era novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" James M. Cain makes the case that economic depressions bring out the worst in people. Reality underscored this point, with the synergy of prohibition and the Great Depression seeing a rise of organized gangs such as Al Capone's and George "Bugs" Moran's, as well as freelancing sociopaths like Baby Face Nelson and Al Brady.
Now that we are facing the possibility of truly bleak economic times for the first time in decades, officers nationwide must reasonably wonder what breed of criminal the current economic difficulties will spawn.
Whatever form he takes, he is coming. Already, the New York Times has warned of a coming crime wave, citing the escalating crime rates for robberies and murders following similar economic downturns in the 1970s and 1980s, including in the aftermath of the 1987 stock market crash.
Even absent academic prognostications, it would appear that the public is concerned. The economic crisis and the election of Barack Obama have combined to produce record numbers of gun sales in recent months.
And street crime is just part of the story and maybe not the most significant concern for the average cop. If data compiled by Massachusetts-based Jane Doe Inc. are accurate, we may already be experiencing a dramatic rise in domestic violence: The number of domestic violence incidents in the state has risen 300 percent in the past three years, with a commensurate increase in murders from 2005.
On the West Coast, the Women's Center of San Joaquin County has likewise experienced a 300-percent increase over the past several months in the number of people who call seeking emergency shelter, temporary restraining orders, and counseling—a trend that advocates say relates directly to the financial stress troubling many of the area's families. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a 21-percent increase in calls for help in September over the same period last year.
It's not just significant others bearing the brunt of stressed-out loved ones. The Children's Advocacy Center of Southwest Florida has seen a spike in child abuse.
"Over the past three months, I've seen more and more cases where children are being abused," Susan Sherman, a pediatric nurse practitioner, told Wink magazine. "Not because their parents are bad, but because they've gotten into such horrible economic shape."
Those hanging on by their emotional fingernails may find the economy to be the nail in their coffins. When a 45-year-old Los Angeles man shot and killed his wife, three sons, and mother-in-law before taking his own life, he left three suicide notes blaming his actions on the economy. In Nevada, a couple was found dead in the desert, victims of a murder-suicide triggered by a lost job and home foreclosure. And in Covina, Calif., newly divorced and unemployed Bruce Jeffrey Pardo shot and killed nine before setting a house ablaze.
While the economy should not be seen as an excuse for the heinous acts of monsters like Pardo, financial distress can lead people who are otherwise able to keep their emotional impulses marginally in check to lose it.
What concerns Anthony Davis, a 38-year-old father of five, is the possibility that those who've not been predisposed to crime may find themselves inexorably pulled into it.
"People are losing their jobs and times are tough, and some of those people could end up turning to crime to make ends meet," Davis told the Muskegon Chronicle. "We need (police) now more than ever."
Unfortunately, whatever the demand for police, there may not be funding for them.
Still, it would appear that for many residents, peace of mind is more valuable than holding down tax rates. Astute politicians may recognize this and put the burden back on the taxpayers, allowing them the opportunity to decide whether or not to make up whatever budgetary shortfall a police department faces before arbitrarily laying off officers.
Hard Times Can Lead to Innovation and Improvement
If ever there was a time for administrators and bureaucrats to think outside the box, it is now. Some already are.
Ohio has had some success incorporating the Japanese business philosophy of kaizen, or continuous improvement, as a means of streamlining bureaucracy. In some cases, paperwork has been reduced by 90 percent, thereby saving both material and time costs.
Police departments may also redefine criteria for dispatching police to calls. To this end, the Palm Bay (Fla.) Police Department and other agencies have taken to assigning report numbers for petty thefts from vehicles, thereby not requiring officers to respond.
For their part, officers can be encouraged to exploit less conventional survival training, such as paintball parks. Venues that volunteer equipment and time might appreciate the tax write-offs. Similar inducements might find sway with car dealerships looking to cut losses by donating cars to police agencies.
And don't forget the occasional generosities of the rich and famous. Actor David Spade, a Phoenix native, recently donated $100,000 to the Phoenix Police Department toward the purchase of new rifles for its officers.
Departments may also pool their resources to get more bang for the buck. We may find greater numbers of adjoining police agencies forming interagency SWAT teams, as well as other specialized teams, again with the added benefit of increased communication between agencies.
And many departments may find greater uses for their police interns, explorers, and civilian volunteers.
If there is a silver lining to the economic crisis, it may well be that patrol officers will develop greater investigative skills as detectives' workloads will find more case assignments reverting back to patrol. Displaced workers may also gravitate to a profession they might not have previously considered, thereby enhancing it.