State your case: Could part-time officers help solve the police recruitment crisis?
A UK agency recently swore in 24 part-time officers to make policing "open to more applicants” with a “flexible alternative." Our experts debate the pros and cons of part-time cops
For the first time, the Greater Manchester Police Department in the UK is offering part-time positions to make policing "open to more applicants” with a “flexible alternative." Earlier this year, Chief Michael Gancasz asked if workforce sharing could help solve police staffing issues.
In a poll, one-third of Police1 readers said part-time job options could help current staffing issues:
Read our columnists' take on this issue and share your opinion below.
The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.
Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.
Jim Dudley: America has had a long history of part-time employees in all sorts of fields, but I’m not sure law enforcement should be one of them.
The idea of part-time police (PTP) sounds like it may work, in concept. As a reality, it would be sub-optimal for a number of reasons:
- Training: Policing is filled with perishable skills, from conducting investigations to trauma-informed interviewing skills, and technical requirements relating to traffic collision and DUI investigations, not to mention firearms training and defensive tactics. The profession is already under attack for training standards and certification below vocational trades. It would be cost-prohibitive for the part-time officer to find their own training.
- Ties to the community: As studies of foot beat patrols have proven, regular interactions between officers and communities strengthen relationships and improve trust. Regular assignments in specific areas let the community become acquainted with “their“ officers that sporadic contact does not promote.
- Commitment: Policing requires commitment. It is not a “hobby job” that can be done well by someone without a commitment to the community, their fellow officers and themselves.
- Continuity of operations: Any supervisor or agency leader will tell you how important it is to know the capabilities of their officers. They count on their knowledge of their responsibilities, areas of assignments, and dependability. Imagine an officer attempting to solve a serial crime in their sector or area of responsibility two days a week.
- Consistency: The job demands a clear focus and consistency that spotty and temporary attendance do not allow.
Joel Shults: Jim, the coin toss that put me on the "pro" side of this issue was a relief because I believe that part-time officers can be a great asset to policing in America. I say this from experience, having been in charge of reserves and interns, and working both as a volunteer unpaid reserve officer and a part-time police officer during my career.
I left a full-time police position when I moved to Colorado to serve as a college teacher and police academy instructor. After achieving P.O.S.T certification in Colorado, I applied and was accepted in a part-time position as a police officer in my new hometown. I was one of two part-timers, myself with eight years of police experience and an officer who had served in a major metropolitan agency.
From a subjective point of view, I can say that I added great value to the agency because of my background. I went through the same FTO program as the other officers and even served as a shift supervisor from time to time. I was on call for major events to alleviate the strain on the regular staffing from working parades to manning an essential perimeter on a long bank robbery turned hostage situation. I served with no concerns about promotion, politics, or "less than" status. I was able to work holidays and weekends and was on the payroll for training days as well. Having an extra hand without the high payroll cost of benefits was a boon to the city.
With all the discussion about alternate modes of service delivery, it seems that qualified part-time officers fit right into this strategy. Part-time officers could be assigned to non-emergency police calls (but must be adequately vetted to handle any police duty when called upon) as one modality available. I also once served as a part-time officer for a nearby small agency when I was a full-time employee with my city. Any agency that allows off-duty employment should be just as content with that secondary employment being another agency as standing around guarding the local convenience store.
In the rural area where I currently live there are retired officers who would enjoy working part-time, continuing to serve and learn with the skills developed over a lifetime.
Hiring part-timers can also be a way to fully vet a prospective full-time officer if the candidate chooses to go full-time at some point. Obviously, management and supervision of part-time officers will be the key to the success of hiring part-time officers and that can be a challenge if accountability fails to be exercised for both part-time and full-time staff. I have said for many years that there is no knowledge of no value in law enforcement. Having a trained officer who might be an accountant, butcher, or delivery driver can only serve to enhance the diversity of knowledge in an agency. The public is well served by the value added by part-time officers.
Jim Dudley: You make some great points of argument Joel, and yes, anecdotally, I have seen excellent men and women in uniform as part-timers in sworn positions as reserves. I too was a cadet and then a reserve with my county sheriff once I went through an 832 Penal Code course, coupled with my full-time status as a college student in administration of justice. My experience was invaluable and helped me make the decision to embark on a career in policing. Still, I'm not sure we are talking about apples to apples.
I am under the impression that "part-time" police officers means just that, that they are sworn to work a shift or two a week in full capacity. I can't imagine that they would meet all the standards I mentioned in my opening statement. I hope some of our readers let us know that they are doing excellent work for agencies where they come in 2-3 days a week and do the exact same job as a full-time sworn officer.
The "less-than" jobs and duties that you speak to beckon to me as non-sworn or civilian jobs, not relegated to duties as police officers. I still cringe when I think of those in these types of jobs who essentially wear the same uniform, but only receive minimal training and may only be armed with maybe handcuffs, a baton and pepper spray. Sometimes, the only difference in the uniform may be a word or two (“public safety” rather than “police”) or lettering on a rocker above a patch or on their badge. I feel we leave some in harm's way to those who see them as police.
I'm all for hiring different people to handle different tasks – social workers, mental health counselors, traffic controllers, animal control, and so on. I maintain that the duties of law enforcement personnel should be handled by sworn, trained, equipped and full-time officers.
Joel Shults: As with many of our debates, we find a fundamental need for data to substantiate our best guesses. As I searched for the number of part-time sworn officers I found a billion references to full-time officers. That told me that part-timers were given little attention in research, but it also told me that by using the term "full-time" there was a tacit acknowledgment that part-timers are out there.
I found one appendix chart of a 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics report stating that there were 44,062 part-time sworn officers with a count of full-time sworn officers at 765,246. It's been hard to pin down our national numbers of even full-time officers because of the varying states' definitions of peace officers. If we go with the 2008 numbers, I calculate that 17% of our sworn police capacity is from part-time officers. What that works out to in full-time equivalency is a mystery since the number of hours worked isn't known. Those are numbers we need to know to research the question of their effectiveness and value.
We also need to know if the assumption is true that part-timers have less training, and are involved in complaints and use of force at equivalent rates as their full-time colleagues. Whether part-timers are a permanent answer to staffing shortfalls or not, they are in the mix and should be considered in law enforcement-related legislation. I can imagine fewer candidates will be willing to risk injury, liability and public scrutiny if qualified immunity is removed or uncompensated injury reduces their main livelihood careers. Let's keep and honor our weekend warriors!
Police1 readers respond
I work for two agencies as a PT officer. One is relatively rural and quiet and the other is in the county hub of retail, banking, business offices, and services ranging from food to fuel. It also surrounds the only city in the county. I grew up in and around both of these areas. The latter agency is all PT and handles most every call except when serious investigation, (including tec), reconstruction, etc. is required and or multiple jurisdictions or states are involved. Otherwise, we do all aspects of LE as a FT agency would do. Both agencies have good working relationships with the state, county and city to provide the best and most appropriate response to a situation. In fact, our county sheriff's department is always appreciative when we are on to help handle the volume the hub of the county can generate. Often officers come from retirement after being in FT positions in larger agencies and bring the experience and knowledge with them that make the PT agency proficient. The thing that stands out for me with PT local agencies is the connection the officer has to the community that state, and at times county LE do not. The community can relate to the police when it is the guy or gal next door, sometimes literally. This is very valuable to the community support on both ends. In short, PT officers and agencies can and do provide LE functions that FT agencies do and are a great opportunity for recruitment and learning.
There is definitely a place for part-time officers in law enforcement – just not in every department. As a part-time (paid) officer who retired after 25 years of service, I can say that in a smaller department there was always a place for "reserve" or part-time officers. Last-minute calls for a night off or a sick day that were covered by a PT officer meant a full-time officer was not held over against their will or ordered in. During local emergencies such as blizzards, hurricanes, etc., a part-time officer could augment the regular force without putting a strain on the regular force by being ordered in on OT or having to work numerous double shifts over several days. The ability to fill an emergency traffic detail for downed wires or a gas leak with a PT officer meant the dispatcher didn't waste time having to call for mutual aid from other departments. So, YES, there is a place for part-time officers in law enforcement, but the part-time officers must be well-trained and current. This means they are academy trained and up to date on in-service requirements. It behooves the parent department to take an interest in their training as well. Send them to specialized training to expand their base of knowledge. I took advantage of this and went to motor officer school, EVOC refresher, firearms instructor school, FBI firearms instructor, commercial vehicle enforcement, active shooter training and law enforcement combat medical care. If it wasn't for an industry-wide bias against part-time officers, I would have gone to accident reconstruction and a half dozen other schools that were open to "full-time only."
- Lots of small departments all over the country use sworn part-time officers to fill gaps in their schedules. As long as the part-timer has gone through the academy and attends all the required in-service training, they can be a good addition to the agency, provided that they work often enough to stay current on procedures. That’s the hard part, particularly if you work (as I did) in quieter jurisdictions where most of the calls were pretty “routine” and your opportunities to learn from experience were limited.
- One of my top reads of 2021 is "Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City." Rosa Brooks, a law school professor, chronicles her training and volunteering as a Washington DC Metro police auxiliary officer. Though it is a small part of the book, Brooks discusses some of the challenges and rewards of being a volunteer who is also a fully sworn officer with all the responsibilities and duties of a full-time officer. I came away from the book believing it would be extremely difficult to be a part-time police officer without previous full-time experience, but Brooks seemed to do it with some personal success and satisfaction with her service.
Certainly in some applications, part-time (PT) police officers would improve personnel shortages and facilitate agency initiatives. Importantly, I would stipulate that these PT officers be formally retired from previous full-time (FT) policing positions that require full state certifications and were in good standing upon initial FT voluntary separation.
Experienced specialists such as forensics, cybercrime and crimes against persons PT could offer substantial contributions to personnel shortages, as well as significant practitioner experience.
From recent experience in Maine, I can testify that sometimes individuals have been grandfathered PT officers and have remained so without ever being polygraphed or passing a physical agility test. Although acceptable in this state, the lack of fulfilling these standards has been evident in some performance appraisals. In order for PT officers to be accepted by the public and their FT peers, these exceptions should be mitigated. In closing, the need for national uniformity in policing requirements has been needed and should be institutionalized and Maine should serve as an example for these efforts.
While it may not be an ideal solution for large, urban PDs, I worked part-time for a small, nine-person department after being out of full-time sworn work for 15 years. The chief wanted someone with "big city" experience to help mentor the younger officers. I went through a two-week recertification academy (and it was a big change going from revolvers to semi-auto and computers in the cars). It was a great program for those who love policing, can contribute expertise and experience, but have other careers. Those other careers also bring other types of expertise to the department (mine was IT and I still do it in the public safety arena) and soft skills that they obtained outside of law enforcement that can be applied to the agency. But it helped the chief as were used for special events, covering vacations and sick time of the full-time officers (that volunteers can't), and worked other special assignments that the full-time officers would complain about having to do (like vacation checks and filling in for crossing guards). We didn't complain because we weren't doing it for the $17 an hour we were making, but because we love protecting and serving.
Your article is well written and covers all the reasons why I have been and still am in law enforcement. I know times are tough but when has this job ever been easy? When I first got into law enforcement, I was lucky enough to know several cops from the 60s. Life wasn't easy for them either. There was that element then who hated and attacked police. As we all know, this job is not for everyone. It is a tough job. However, I see more support for us (despite the media coverage of police hatred) than I saw in the 70s when I got into law enforcement then. I've had people thank me for my service (still not used to that) and buy my lunch for me. That always chokes me up. It's tough but the job is worth it. The negatives and stressors may change but they will always be there. The ultimate reward is that you are doing the right thing and standing up for good people. You are not fighting for what is ahead of you but fighting for what you love that is behind you.