What are the police willing to give up?
Demand for police services relative to the capacity of police agencies is unbalanced in many jurisdictions. Increased response times, sometimes measured in days rather than minutes, staffing shortages and mission creep have required alternative ways of responding, or decisions not to respond at all.
Alternatives to an officer responding in a patrol car include call screening in order to refer citizens to appropriate non-law enforcement resources, using telephone reporting in place of in-person report-taking and the expanded use of non-sworn personnel to deliver services.
A recently released report titled “Enhancing Public Safety While Saving Public Dollars with Auxiliary Private Security Agents” proposes yet another mode of service delivery.
The report is compiled by the Canada-based Montreal Economic Institute, an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit research and educational organization described as purposed to stimulate debate on public policies through its publications, media appearances and conferences.
The report’s self-description encapsulates the document’s scope quite well:
The core mission of policing is to control crime. However, the demands on officers in non-criminal areas have grown as governments have saddled officers with increasing responsibilities. To make the best use of scarce police time and public resources while also offering the highest level of public safety, we propose the incorporation of auxiliary private security agents in non-core areas such as administration and other ancillary tasks. By concentrating more of officers’ time on the specialized tasks which presumably led them to become officers in the first place, their job satisfaction will also likely increase, which itself will increase public safety.”
IDENTIFYING THE CORE RESPONSIBILITIES OF LAW ENFORCEMENT
The police profession has struggled to identify the core responsibilities of law enforcement. We can say that a police agency exists for the basic functions of responding to emergencies, ensuring public safety, investigating criminal activity and enforcing the law, but public expectations and legislative mandates have expanded what officers actually do on a daily basis.
While officers are well trained in their roles in emergencies and intervention in criminal activity, studies indicate that as much as 90% of an officer’s time is spent on incidents not directly related to crime. A strict definition of community policing might argue that any police contact with the public has the function of improving public order and therefore reducing criminal opportunity, but it would be hard to argue that policing has not suffered from “mission creep” over the years.
Even when officers are engaged in the business of crime control and responding to emergencies, the resulting administrative tasks associated with those calls easily comprise half of the officers’ time on task.
With a great deal of a police officer’s time engaged in activities that do not require the training, fitness and relational skills or the powers of arrest, the prospect of alternative staffing has merit. The report concludes that “It is in such time-consuming areas that private agents can specialize to relieve the demands on police officers’ time, resulting in higher efficiency and productivity, and ultimately an enhanced quality of policing.” The study estimates that using private security agents would create massive savings if only 75% of the administrative burden were offloaded to private agents.
The duties recommended in the report to be taken by private agents include many traffic management activities including (speed cops – a role which tends to treat all law-breakers as proven criminals rather than most simply having let their minds wander), traffic direction and manning sobriety checkpoints along with staff with arrest powers.
REDUCING COMMISSIONED OFFICER NEEDSThe report suggests phasing in the use of private agents over as long as 15 years. The report estimates that such a hybridization could reduce commissioned officer needs by 30% at the Los Angeles Police Department, for example. The report concludes that “Every hour police spend on non-core activities is an hour less that can be spent actually controlling and preventing crime. Outsourcing non-core tasks to private agents will make our communities safer, preserve public resources, and increase officers’ job satisfaction.”
The arguments are persuasive and point out the existing importance of private security in many cities:
Amidst widespread looting in 2020, Chicago awarded emergency no-bid contracts to a number of private security companies in a public spend of up to $1.2 million. Assigned to patrol certain areas and protect businesses, their presence allowed the city, according to the mayor, to ‘free up our police personnel to be as nimble as possible in responding to district-level calls for service.’ In other areas of Chicago, private patrols are the norm, hired by neighborhood associations throughout the city. Residents, businesses, and community or neighborhood associations in San Francisco and Baltimore also contract private security companies due to stretched-thin police departments.”
These examples were not, strictly speaking, a hybridization of non-sworn agents integrated into the respective departments, but do illustrate their potential impact which, in the words of the report “should raise the eyebrows of politicians.”
Most police policymakers will likely accede to the idea of force multipliers like private agents, but with several caveats.
The very concept assumes a lesser trained, lesser fit, lesser able and lesser paid staff. Dividing up duties could involve a loss of continuity in court cases and rely on essentially civilian testimony to police operations and investigations. Even contracting agents from private companies, rather than direct hires, does not shift the liability when the government agencies’ pockets are deeper.
Duties that do not require a police officer can escalate very quickly into dangerous situations that a private agent may not be equipped to handle. Liability in areas normally entrusted to police officers still attaches with claims of inadequate training looming large.
On the other hand, the success of non-sworn community service officers has resulted in widespread acceptance and has been used as a recruiting tool as well. Perhaps the difference is not very great.
The proposal makes sense from a total budget standpoint, but giving up responsibilities that the profession has accepted for decades may not be worth the price in the eyes of many police leaders.