I was recently making my way through several bins in my basement. These particular bins contained a virtual treasure trove of unknowns, the result of my having moved several times within the last decade. One thing I was pleasantly surprised to find was an old notepad. I typically keep a notepad on my desk and work my way through it as ideas pop into my head. This particular notepad was from my first job as a chief of police. Early on in my career as an administrator, I’d sat down to plan a general road map for the development of the small police department in western Kansas that I’d recently been tasked with leading. On said notepad, I’d drawn a pyramid. The bottom contained a list of absolute essentials, the very basics of a good police agency. The next level up contained slightly higher-level things, like more routine training. The top level mentioned long-term goals, such as being involved in the state police chiefs’ organization and being in a position to help neighboring departments.
I’ve learned a lot over the last decade, and I’d probably take issue with some of the things my 10-years-ago self thought were important. But that pyramid is, in my opinion, still applicable. No one likes to talk about “the basics.” Basics aren’t sexy and they don’t grab headlines. They don’t get a department on the front cover of a glossy magazine or look great on an administrator’s resume, the way a cutting-edge program would. But they truly are essential. Like the pyramid I drew on that old notepad, all the impressive higher-level things a department does will crumble if the bottom level of basics isn’t in place.
Adequate staffing is one of those basics. Without enough officers, innovative new programs won’t have people to implement them. All the cutting-edge training in the world is useless if an agency is too short-handed to allot time for it. There is little legitimate reason for a chief (or any other agency personnel) to learn new techniques at a state-level organization if they don’t have an agency with the resources to carry out those techniques.
Consider, if you will, a newly elected sheriff who decides he wants to implement a number of changes at the agency he’s just taken over. Our hypothetical sheriff is well-read, so he’s fully aware of the many issues facing the law enforcement profession. He genuinely wants to implement all the various reforms he’s been reading about. His new agency has no full-time training unit and the training is admittedly minimal. So, he creates one. Unwilling to ask his taxpayers for more officers, he simply takes the needed positions from the road patrol division. Our well-meaning new sheriff also wants to have a full-time victims’ advocate. He knows from research such programs help minimize the stress felt by victims as they work their way through the criminal justice process. Finally, he wants to implement a full-time community policing unit. These officers will give presentations and form neighborhood watch groups. The officers necessary to form this unit also come from the uniform patrol division. There are now only enough officers in the patrol division to have one on-duty deputy on the road at a time. The new average wait time for a response when a citizen calls is three hours. Additionally, the new sheriff obviously wants to use his new training unit. He orders that all deputies will spend at least one day a month in training. As there are already not enough officers on the road, they will have to come in on their days off to attend this training.
Training requirements are well-intentioned and can help make officers better at their jobs. However, few ever stop to question when the officers will do this training.
A good plan? Obviously not. This is clearly an extreme example, but all too often it is essentially what communities do. Local government officials want reform because it’s being called for by their constituents. Besides, it’s a good thing. Law enforcement administrators want to implement these reforms for similar reasons. Forward-thinking programs look great on an administrator’s resume and tend to impress community members. Again, in all fairness, many of these reforms are good things we should already be doing anyway.
The problem is obviously not in the reforms themselves. Many reforms will build trust with the communities that agencies serve. Some will save lives. The problem, rather, lies in the fact that trying to implement resource-thirsty reforms without properly staffing for them may actually cause more harm than good. Take, for example, training. In many states, it’s common for legislatures to add training requirements for local law enforcement officers in response to political outcry. This typically comes in the form of annual training requirements from Police Officer Standards and Training commissions. These moves are obviously well-intentioned and can help make officers better at their jobs. However, few ever stop to question when the officers will do this training. Many agencies (especially the small agencies that constitute the bulk of police departments in the United States) have just enough officers on staff to keep their patrol schedule full. All of an officer’s time is already spoken for, filling a slot on the patrol schedule to ensure someone is available to respond when citizens call for help. Any training has to be done on a day an officer would normally be off, trying to rest and have some semblance of a normal life. The more we take away their rest time, the more officers are likely to burn out. This can lead not only to retention problems, but also to increased uses of force, bad interactions with citizens and all the other things the reforms were meant to address in the first place. To truly understand just how untenable this approach is, we need only consider how it would go over in other vocations. Would it be considered good practice if your average business required its employees to come in at 2 a.m. on a Saturday for training? Obviously not; it would be derided as ridiculous. Yet this is essentially what we are doing when a night-shift officer is required to come in on their day off to fulfill the latest training requirement that’s been implemented without thought to proper staffing. If the agency were properly staffed to handle the training requirement, time would be built in to the officer’s regular work schedule.
Many of the reforms being proposed are good things. Some are, quite frankly, things that law enforcement agencies should already be doing. But they cannot be implemented without the proper staffing to carry them out.
Does this mean that local governments should reject the calls for reform coming from their citizenry? Certainly not. Many of these proposals address changes that the law enforcement profession has already been calling for. Rather, departments should respond to these calls for improvement with facts. There are numerous ways to properly, scientifically calculate how many officers an agency needs, based on the number of calls it handles in a year’s time. These methods are taught at most high-level administrative schools, such as Northwestern’s School of Police Staff and Command or the Southern Police Institute. They are mathematically based and provide a very practical way to determine how many officers an agency should have. Departments should make use of these approaches to determine their legitimate staffing needs and then share these figures with the community. These calls for reform provide a unique opportunity for departments and community leaders to work together to obtain the resources needed to implement reforms. Proper reform can’t happen without proper staffing.
Cliff Couch is a police chief in East Tennessee and a graduate of the FBI National Academy, Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command, and Harvard’s Executive Education Program for State and Local Government. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor’s degree in criminology and psychology from Florida State University. You can follow him on Twitter @CliftonDCouch or on his blog, www.LifeofaLawman.com.