With decreased resources, how will the police continue to provide quality services?

A regionalized approach may be a viable solution


This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

In the aftermath of a year consumed by a global pandemic, civil unrest and political divide, law enforcement finds itself the target of reform to weed out systemic racism in the justice system.

Demands for a new era of policing, sparked by controversial police use of force incidents, have fueled social movements aimed at reimagining the future of law enforcement’s role in society. There are calls for legal reforms, increased oversight, greater transparency, and diverting police funding to community programs and social service initiatives.

Meanwhile, economic downturns and rising operational costs continue to burden municipal revenues, forcing most police agencies to make tough financial decisions about reduced staffing, decreased training and equipment budgets, and ultimately decreased levels of service. [1]

Although not a new concept to policing in America, the regionalization of services has not gained much traction.
Although not a new concept to policing in America, the regionalization of services has not gained much traction. (Getty Images)

As if this wasn’t enough to occupy our attention for the next decade, factor in de-criminalization laws, prison reform, early-release programs, and a growing homelessness and mental illness crisis. The climate for many cities today is one of rising crime, increased health and safety risks to communities, and growing public frustrations.

While national polling tends to show that support for law enforcement has decreased in the past year, the actual support for local law enforcement is stronger than ever as concerned citizens watch their once-peaceful neighborhoods devolve into a perceived state of lawlessness. [2] Even in major cities where defunding initiatives reduced police services, a recent analysis of police budgets shows an increase in spending and the reinstatement of defunded positions due to the growing public concern over the rise in violent crime. [3]

Although the future will undoubtedly involve additional reforms, law enforcement leaders who proactively engage in this present opportunity to reform policing may be able to limit additional mandates and have a significant impact on reshaping the profession. While the vision for law enforcement continues to develop from the chaos of 2020, planning for a future with decreased resources and looming financial decline will be a needed hurdle to overcome.

Financial decline

A challenge for the police as they create the vision of the future will be the strategic allocation of resources to develop the most efficient and effective ways of protecting and providing needed services to the community. With antiquated revenue systems, rising operational and personnel costs, coupled with financial instability and calls for “defunding” the police, preparing for a future with decreased financial resources will allow law enforcement to create a sustainable future.

Police budgets, which often account for more than half of a city’s operating budget, are often hit hardest during economic decline as cities attempt to balance their monetary shortfalls. In California, for example, the great recession in 2008 drastically impacted tax revenue numbers; 4,000 sworn and 3,000 civilian law enforcement positions were cut as cities tried to balance their budgets. [4] According to the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of full-time law enforcement officers dropped by more than 23,000 between 2013 and 2016. [5] Even more recently, on the heels of the global pandemic, California was one of four states hit hardest by the loss in tax revenues, reporting an 11.1% decline. [6]

During times of financial growth, however, stagnant tax revenue models do not account for rising operational and personnel costs to provide police services. As an example, a budget analysis conducted of California cities showed that from 2003 to 2018, operating expenditures for policing increased by an average of 37%. During the same time, officers per 1,000 residents decreased from 3.67 to 2.02, with overall staffing levels showing less than a 3% increase. [7] A sustainability study published by the League of California Cities (2018) also estimated that by fiscal year 2024/25, city pension costs (PERS) will dramatically increase due to unfunded expenses to unsustainable levels. [8]

To account for budget shortfalls, cities without the ability to enact voter-approved tax increases to supplement revenues are forced to find alternative funding sources, dip into reserves, or reduce expenditures, which ultimately leads to a decrease in provided services. A 2019 survey conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police noted that a quarter of responding California police agencies reported having to reduce or eliminate certain agency services, units or positions because of staffing difficulties. [9] According to a survey out last year by the National Police Foundation, 86% of departments nationally reported a staffing shortage. [5] In addition, research shows that operating below authorized staffing levels leads to low officer morale and job satisfaction, taxing existing resources and personnel. [9]

Considering a regionalized approach to providing police services may prove to be a viable solution for cities to overcome financial shortfalls, address personnel shortages, provide an expanded scope of services, and bring consistency to law enforcement efforts in the region.

The case for regionalization

Although not a new concept to policing in America, the regionalization of services has not gained much traction. Aside from occasional consolidation efforts such as contracting of police services and the creation of regional task forces to address specific needs, few agencies have attempted to fully consolidate services as permanent or long-term solutions.

This individualized approach to providing police services decreases the availability of supplemental state and federal funding and drives up personnel costs as agencies compete for a diminished qualified candidate pool while also not benefitting from any work to reduce redundant capabilities. With respect to the history of these agencies, now is the time to consider disbanding the structures of the past to create a more effective, less costly approach to policing.

Approaches to regionalization

The advantages of a regional approach to providing police services include cost benefits, increased personnel opportunities, increased services provided and increased consistency and efficiency in policing efforts. Regionalization of services also allows for local jurisdictions to retain local control, honor traditions and still address the specific needs of their communities.

Through the establishment of a joint powers agreement (JPA), participating agencies would have a forum to establish protocols and procedures, determine costs, and set up the logistical and staffing needs of the regionalized efforts. They can also eliminate costly redundant management, support and executive positions as they consolidate chains of command.

To begin the regionalization of services, participating agencies could start with consolidating many of the support services each agency employs. This includes dispatch, records, jail services and parking enforcement. As the benefits of the regionalization are realized, additional services to include tactical teams, homeless outreach services, crime scene investigations, Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) and other such services could be added to a regional approach. After that, the possibility of a merger between cities to provide a regionalized police agency to include patrol and investigations could become reality.

Regionalization, either by consolidating specific services or through the creation of a new law enforcement entity through a JPA or through contract services, will allow local agencies to reduce expenditures while continuing to provide quality services. The following are three areas where regionalized efforts could provide the most value to participating cities: cost reductions, increased opportunities for personnel and  increased consistency and effectiveness of policing to improve public safety.

1. Cost benefits

The cost benefits to participating agencies through regionalization can include a reduction in personnel costs, infrastructure and maintenance costs, and equipment costs; all through cost-sharing agreements.

As an example of the consolidation of services, in 2010, the City of El Segundo (Southern California) decided to consolidate its dispatching services and joined the South Bay Regional Public Communications Authority. [10] In the proposal, the then police chief estimated the move toward joining the regionalized dispatch group would save the city an estimated $1.1 million per year for the first two years, with even greater savings through the length of the original 10-year agreement. [10] Aside from the cost benefits, the switch to the regionalized effort was said to be a major step forward for public safety.

When looking at cost-reduction benefits associated with regionalizing police services, participating agencies could reduce their overall staffing needs thereby reducing costs. As a recent example, the cities of Pismo Beach and Grover Beach have agreed to consolidate dispatching services. Independently, each city staffs six dispatchers however, through the partnership, the staffing needed for the regionalized effort would total nine dispatchers. The reduced staffing is estimated to save the two cities close to $337,000 in the first year alone. [11]

Shared infrastructure and equipment costs could also help cities to realize additional savings. The actual consolidation structure would dictate the need for upfront costs associated with remodeling and technological set-up needs. These costs, plus any ongoing costs for personnel and equipment, would then be managed among participating agencies through the JPA. These costs might be offset by utilizing available regionalized development grant funding. For the dispatching example, as we begin to better utilize available technologies, the need for a centralized structure to house dispatch operations may evolve into a scenario where dispatchers can work from home with a phone line and internet connection while providing the same level of service and support, further reducing costs.

In addition to the potential of reduced personnel and operating costs, regionalization would provide additional cost savings to help cities. JPAs could account for attorney’s fees, with one legal firm representing the group instead of each city having to foot their own attorney bill. Cost-sharing agreements could also be made for lawsuits, reducing each cities financial exposure to rising settlement agreements.

Lastly, regionalization efforts could help to level off wage and benefit increases as cities continue to raise the bar to attract qualified candidates by competing with local agencies. By combining hiring and recruiting efforts and sharing candidate pools for personnel, participating agencies could establish uniformed salary schedules and benefits because they would no longer be competing against their neighboring cities.

2. Increased personnel opportunities

Increased personnel opportunities for cities, agencies and employees would be realized through the regionalization of police services, ultimately enhancing the quality of services provided to the community. One approach for increasing personnel opportunities would be for participating agencies to consolidate hiring and recruiting efforts. By partnering for these functions, participating agencies could enhance recruitment efforts and streamline the hiring and testing processes by creating a combined candidate pool from which to draw. With fewer positions needing to be filled through the regionalization of services and utilization of a shared candidate pool, participating agencies would also be able to capitalize on a more qualified candidate pool at an overall cost saving.

Through regionalization of police services, participating agencies would also be able to tap into a wider pool of experienced personnel to combat the increasing turnover rates that law enforcement faces. According to a 2109 study published by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), law enforcement is facing a triple threat as it pertains to police staffing. There are fewer police applicants, more officers are leaving their departments, and, in many cases, there are more officers leaving the profession. This is in addition to a growing number of officers who will be eligible for retirement in the next three to five years. As agencies begin to tap into the benefits of regionalization, however, agencies can benefit from more experienced personnel to help shape the future of the profession.

Regionalizing services could also allow cities to deploy additional resources to meet the growing demands of their communities. Many local cities struggling to make ends meet financially have been forced to reduce the number of special assignment opportunities; allocating their depleted resources to meet basic patrol and investigative needs. While occasional task force opportunities do exist, these resources tend to focus on larger areas throughout their respective counties where the demand is greatest, leaving smaller cities without the attention they need to address local problems.

Through the creation of regional efforts, cities could focus on local problems that have an impact on the needs of their specific regions. These regionalized efforts could include resources to address such issues as homelessness, traffic enforcement, and special enforcement and investigative efforts to address narcotics activity, gang violence and graffiti.

Participating communities would enjoy needed resources and enhanced services, cities would be able to provide more services for a fraction of the cost, and employees will enjoy more opportunities for experience and career growth. These benefits could lead to future sustainability, increased morale and job satisfaction, and address retention issues due to employees being overburdened by the increasing demands and lack of available resources.

3. Increased consistency/efficiency

Today more than ever, developing consistent policing standards and practices has been a growing concern. As local cities look toward the regionalization of services, standards of training can be enhanced, bringing consistency in policing and increased accountability. While big-city police agencies tend to get the most attention, small agencies who rarely make the news have been in the spotlight recently for controversial use of force cases. [12] Smaller, local departments often have limited resources and the decentralized structure of American law enforcement complicates efforts to mandate widespread training and policy changes. [12] Policies and practices can vary significantly from department to department. These differences can include how departments approach the use of force as well as the levels of training and specialization involved. Regionalization would enhance training efforts by developing and implementing standardized programs. Officers in the region would be better equipped to meet the needs of the communities they serve – leading to increased productivity, enhanced officer safety and reduced liability.

Through the regionalization of police services, differences in policing strategies across jurisdictional lines can be reduced, providing a more consistent and standardized response to address community needs. Enhanced consistency will begin to develop at not only the line level, but supervision among participating agencies will also become more standardized, providing better working conditions and leadership through the creation of standardized expectations. Enhanced information sharing leading to increased investigative resources would also be a benefit of regionalization. Participating agencies could begin to standardize technologies and investigative tools to increase information pools, standardize working protocols, and enhance the sharing of information across city boundaries for improved quality of services provided to the community.

CONCLUSION

Although there are many benefits to the regionalization of police services, there will be many hurdles for participating agencies to overcome. Relinquishing local control, dealing with varying local ordinances and specific community needs, and overcoming MOU differences will present challenges for a regionalized effort to be implemented successfully. Putting traditional pride aside and focusing on providing a sustainable future, though, will be essential for departments wishing to provide quality of services to their communities.

While the future of policing is yet to be fully revealed, law enforcement leaders should begin to explore and engage in strategies that address foreseeable obstacles, which include financial instability and increasing community demands for services. Considering regionalized police services, from the consolidation of shared needs to the merger of local departments, could be a viable solution that allows local cities to meet the challenges of providing quality services to their communities while providing the law enforcement profession with a sustainable future.

References

1. Yee C. West Covina leaders propose restoring cut police, fire resources, but with what money? San Gabriel Valley Tribune, December 24, 2018.

2. Harrison B. Policing in the new era: Lessons from the George Floyd incident. Police 1.

3. Elinson Z, Frosch D, Jamerson J. Cities Reverse Defunding the Police Amid Rising Crime. Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2021.

4. Lofstrom M, Martin B. Law Enforcement Staffing. February 2021.

5. Elnashar A. Police Officer Shortage Part of 8-year National Trend. Sinclair Broadcast Group. April 30, 2021.

6. Rosewicz B, Theal J, Fall A. Pandemic Drives Historic State Tax Revenue Drop. February 17, 2021.

7. Sforza T. As police spending swelled to historic highs, police forces barely grew. Now What? Orange County Register, August 30, 2020. .

8. League of California Cities. Retirement System Sustainability Study and Findings. January 2018.  

9. International Association of Chiefs of Police. The State of Recruitment: A Crisis for Law Enforcement.

10. Agostoni K. El Segundo Switches 911 call function to regional center. Los Angeles Daily News, April 07, 2010.

11. Bubnash K. Pismo and Grover consider consolidating dispatch services. New Times San Luis Obispo, March 04, 2021.

12. Berman M. Most police departments in America are small. That’s partly why changing policing is difficult, experts say. The Washington Post, May 8, 2021.

13. Police Executive Research Forum. The Workforce Crisis and What Police Agencies Are Doing About It, 2019.

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