There are many communities, especially small towns, that are just now starting to feel the full brunt of the economic transformation taking place. The decline in housing values, the collapse of the Growth Ponzi Scheme and the failure of state and federal governments to come to the rescue has created the predicted hard reality. As elected officials struggle with budgets, a surprising trend is emerging: police departments are no longer the sacred cows they have historically been.

Before I go any further let me state clearly that public safety workers have some of the most difficult and thankless jobs in the world. I could never do the job of a police officer or fire fighter. While we sometimes curse them when we get a parking ticket, we are always thankful to have them there when we need them. There are many that give their lives each year defending the public. We honor them as individuals, even while trying to examine their collective role in the tightening public budget.

Maintaining a local police department is very expensive. While there is no policeman getting rich (nobody goes into law enforcement for the financial reward), salaries and benefits are substantial. For small towns with a clerk and a maintenance worker, having a police department can easily double or triple the line item for wages.

But wages are often not the largest expense. Each officer needs to be outfitted. At a minimum this includes a vehicle with a computer, remote internet connection, dispatch radio and cell phone. It also includes all of the traffic enforcement gear, like a radar gun and alcohol monitoring devices. Most today wear body armor along with their uniform. Then there are the weapons, from handguns to rifles to shotguns to tasers.

The interesting thing about local police departments is that there never seems to be an end to the list of necessary gear. I've sat through dozens of city council meetings where the officer is there asking for some gadget or device, all with very real examples of where it saved a life somewhere else and where a local incident of a similar nature is a near-certainty. It is really difficult for local officials to decline such a request, especially since they can be certain if they do that a future police report will include a reference to how the damage could have been minimized (or, even worse, a life saved) if the requested gear had been available.

The extremely high cost of maintaining a police department is one of the hidden expenses of our spread-out development pattern. If you think back to the towns of the pre-automobile era, a constable walking the beat with a nightstick was a fairly inexpensive way to keep the peace. If you just think of the fuel that goes into keeping a cop car running so that the officer can make their rounds, the cost is staggering.

And in reality, a lot of the work done by the modern police officer is the same stuff that was done by the constable a century ago, just more expensive and higher stakes due to the automobile. Public drunkenness is now Driving Under the Influence (DUI). Nobody ever died getting run over by the drunk staggering home, but put them behind the wheel - which is the only way to get around in our society - and the drunk becomes a killer with a deadly weapon.

A modern domestic assault is now in some isolated house, as opposed to a neighborhood where social stigma would perhaps keep things from escalating out of control. Responding to robberies, burglaries and disturbances will always be part of the job, but now perpetrators flee by car. The high speed chase is no longer on foot down an alley but by auto at 100 mph.

The constable did not have to do traffic control. Or respond to traffic accidents. In reality, about 95% or more of the incidents in the police reports at the typical city council meeting will be traffic violations. Speeding, failed to come to a complete stop, etc... Many, many DUI's.  

Part of this is actually a touch comic. I used to joke with one mayor that, "We never had any crime until we got a police force. Now we have crime everywhere." As an example, the town I live in had a police officer for a couple of years. I got pulled over on my local road once for having a taillight out. There could not be more than two or three cars an hour that time of night along the stretch of road he was hiding. The general welfare of my neighbors could survive the misfire on my taillight (which I had been to shop at least six times to have fixed, to no avail), and fortunately the city removed this expense from our budget.

I've suggested off-the-record to a couple of mayors that their city could save a lot of money by replacing the police department with breathalyser volunteers at the bars at closing time. There might be some constitutional issues with that, but there would also be some political ones. We had a local cop here in one town that had the department target the areas near the bars for driving infractions around closing time. They did a very effective job of catching drunk drivers, which benefited the town greatly, and they thanked the chief by electing a mayor that promised to quash the tyranny emanating from the police department. The profiling of bar patrons as potential drunks ended shortly thereafter. Now they spend vastly more money, and to much less effect, patrolling streets in a more random fashion, even though they know the only issue of import at that hour is drunken driving.

Then you have the issue of corruption, which is low-level but pervasive. I've seen more than one cop that stepped over the line, will have the council about ready to fire them and the officer will then pack city hall with all the people that owe them favors to protest the dismissal. One local police officer was fired for good cause and was then elected to the council in the next election. As I wrote earlier, people do not go into public safety for the money, but there is a lot of power that comes with these positions. In Minnesota, there are some really dangerous incentives that are created by our laws that allow local departments to keep money from traffic fines and revenue from auctions on seized equipment.

It is my sense that our system of public safety could be radically redesigned to be more efficient, more effective and less expensive. This would be even more true if (and when) our living patterns get more in touch with our economic realities and becomes less spread out. Most police work - investigations, patrolling, responding to traffic incidents - could best be handled on a regional basis where the scale of operations could create efficiencies. Local police are effective in keeping the peace when they actually get to know the people they protect, so hyper-localizing the day-to-day cop work (getting people out of their cars) may reduce costs and increase effectiveness. 

After all, for taxpayers, having a local police department is a lot about peace-of-mind. It is tough to have peace-of-mind when you can't name a single officer in your local department because you've never met them or even seen them outside of their car. Unless, of course, you have been pulled over for failing to come to a complete stop at the neighborhood intersection you navigate through eight times a day. In that case, you may know their name but you are also now likely believe they are wasting their time with you and should be out catching real criminals.

It is not too difficult to see why cities are targeting police departments for dramatic cuts. This should not be looked at as a sign of pending lawlessness or anarchy but as a healthy response to a system that is not working well. A rethinking of how we deliver public safety, focusing more on distinct hyper-local and regional strategies, could save officer's jobs, lots of taxpayer money and probably some lives. 

 

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