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Policing in the New Economy: A New Report on the Emerging Trends from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

By Bernard K. Melekian, Director, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

o say that municipal, county, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies across the United States have been adversely affected by the economic downturn of the past several years is a dramatic understatement. Local economies have been devastated by both decreasing tax revenues and reduced levels of support from federal and state funding sources. In this fiscal environment, local government executives and legislative bodies have been looking closely at their public safety expenditures and making difficult budget decisions. These decisions not only impact the level and quality of service but also, in some cases, will determine the very existence of a local agency.

To address these unfolding issues in a timely manner, a recent report compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (the COPS Office), titled The Impact of the Economic Downturn on American Police Agencies, set out to document the early responses of American law enforcement agencies to current budget challenges.1 Although the COPS Office focused attention on the particular picture unfolding across the United States, law enforcement executives from other countries will find the report relevant as well.

The analysis relied on surveys, data, and other sources of information compiled by various national organizations including the IACP, as well as on data submitted directly by law enforcement agencies applying for COPS Hiring Program (CHP) grant funds. Together, these compiled numbers, data trends, and stories from local law enforcement paint a somber and realistic picture regarding police staffing and funding. After at least 25 years of steady gains in the number of both sworn and civilian personnel serving at the local, state, or tribal level (most recently measured in 2008 at the national aggregate level),2 all indicators point to a downward trend in personnel levels. Estimates and projections from various data sources suggest that approximately 12,000 police officers and sheriffs’ deputies will have been laid off in 2011; approximately 30,000 law enforcement positions will have gone unfilled; and approximately 28,000 sworn personnel will have faced work furloughs of at least one week or more. Similar cutbacks are evident for civilian personnel serving in police agencies.

As the former police chief for Pasadena, California, who also served for nearly one year as its city manager, I understand too well what these data trends mean to local governments in general and to public safety agencies in particular. It is very clear that the delivery of police services is going to fundamentally change and is not returning to its peak 2008 levels anytime soon, if at all.

Maintaining the gains that have been made in community policing over more than two decades will be difficult without a fundamental restructuring in the service delivery model. The alternative is to simply do “less of the same” and wait for the economy to improve. In most jurisdictions, this will not be a viable approach.

Changes in Policing in the New Economy

I would venture that the overwhelming majority, if not all, of law enforcement executives that read Police Chief magazine are experiencing these challenges firsthand. Feedback from the CHP grant agencies, the reports put together by the IACP and other national police and governance organizations, and articles that appear in the local papers and national press collectively reference a broad array of belt-tightening measures. Some agencies have found it necessary to use a triage approach in responding to calls for service, with some severely limiting the types of calls that result in direct face-to-face responses by officers. In March 2011, a New York Times article chronicled the effect of laying off 163 officers in Camden, New Jersey.3 Changes included alternative methods for handling certain reports, greater utilization of closed-circuit television cameras, and greater utilization of civilian volunteers.

The COPS Office report chronicles other service cutbacks, as well. A recent survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, for example, indicated that 26 percent of respondents reported a reduction in investigative follow-ups, including those related to property crimes, fugitive tracking, nonfelony domestic assaults, financial crimes, computer crimes, narcotics, and traffic cases.4 The common theme across many of the service cutbacks is an unfortunate reduction in direct face-to-face contacts between citizens and police personnel. In addition, separate surveys by the IACP and by the Police Executive Research Forum confirm that substantial portions of agencies had already begun, or were planning to begin, cutbacks on training and on equipment purchases, including cutting-edge technology.5 Thus, it is not just a matter of fewer officers rendering fewer direct services; the quality of services in many agencies potentially will be further compromised because of cutbacks in training and in technology resources.

A New Resourcefulness

The COPS Office report and the sources relied on to compile that report point to a number of innovations used around the country. Trends toward civilianization and the use of volunteers—both of which began before the economic downturn—have been stepped up. In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for instance, civilians working as part-time “police ambassadors” have assumed duties—giving directions and staffing special events, for example—which formerly had been performed by sworn officers. Reliance on citizen volunteers, promoted in great measure by the IACP’s widely heralded Volunteers in Police Service program, is making a mark across many communities. In Durham, North Carolina, civilian volunteers help officers canvass neighborhoods after violent crimes, including murders. These volunteers contribute directly to essential community services by patrolling shopping mall parking lots during the holiday season and conducting property checks for residents who are out of town.

These approaches are innovative responses to economic hardships. Further, they are vital elements in promoting community policing by maintaining crucial interpersonal contacts between the public and the local department.

At the same time, many departments are using technology to enhance efficiency and provide force-multiplier effects. Readers of this publication are already familiar with the advantages and operational efficiencies provided by public surveillance cameras, license plate readers, and gunshot location technology, to name but a few. The ways in which these technologies are implemented, of course, can either promote or diminish public trust. Additionally, cost implications of new technologies are not always immediately clear. Short-term investments in technology may or may not bring long-term gains. Utilization of cost-benefit analysis and constant surveillance for unintended consequences are critical skills in this economic environment.

Redoubling Efforts at Collaboration

Questions of regionalization and consolidation have long been the subject of discussion, if not heated debate, among public safety practitioners, policy makers, and politicians. The economic downturn is bringing greater urgency to these discussions and has underscored the need to increase collaboration in a number of areas that might not have been considered under other circumstances.

While policing in the United States always has been characterized by localized service and governance, there is a growing appreciation for collaboration and a willingness to look at regionalization as a means of increasing efficiencies and promoting cost-effectiveness. More and more, fusion centers are helping to promote partnerships and cross-jurisdictional collaboration, not just in the arena of homeland security but also in the sharing of intelligence and information integration for all crimes and hazards.

The IACP’s recent survey indicated that one-quarter of responding agencies referenced their participation in innovative multijurisdictional sharing of resources, such as dispatch services, SWAT, hazmat, crime technicians, crime laboratories, and training.6 This type of sharing can result in greater cost efficiencies and operational proficiencies. Ultimately, a relatively small number of departments have chosen the route of consolidation, while other local governments have decided to disband their police departments and contract for services with other agencies—often county sheriffs. The implication of collaboration, consolidations, and contracting arrangements on both cost efficiencies and community policing should be closely watched and analyzed for valuable lessons. Given the diversity of American law enforcement, it is clear that what works in one part of the country may not always work in another.

Through the examples of pioneering law enforcement leaders, partnerships with other government agencies, support and technical assistance from federal agencies, and guidance by organizations like the IACP, law enforcement executives have a long legacy of turning necessity into virtue by adapting to circumstances and challenges. In that tradition, I believe we can look forward to innovations and resourcefulness across public safety in the coming years.

Balancing Local Law Enforcement Approaches with New Global Challenges

Many readers will recognize, particularly from an international perspective, that American policing is highly fragmented and localized. Local governance is and should be seen as the bedrock of American democracy. In many ways, this localization and agency autonomy serve the interests of community policing. Decentralization allows for responsiveness to the community being served. At the same time, however, we also must understand how and when this organizational architecture results in a fragmentation of services and efforts, particularly in the face of criminal networks, terrorist threats, and cybercrimes that operate on regional, national, and global levels.

In a recent article, former Saint Michaels, Maryland, police chief and current Kutztown University of Pennsylvania professor Gary Cordner, PhD, declares that “describing American policing is fundamentally challenging because the Unites States is such a large country and it has an extremely fragmented police system.” Dr. Cordner goes on to say that “more research is specifically needed on the types and varieties of police agencies that inhabit the American landscape.”7 These words serve as an apt description of American policing at any point in history. However, the recent state of affairs further underscores the relevance of these unique traits. The current reality requires that we grapple with this intrinsic complexity while simultaneously coming to grips with the current economic crisis and the emerging demands placed on law enforcement by globalization, which include persistent threats of terrorism, multinational criminal networks, and evolving cyberthreats and cybercrimes. This new reality, which some may call the “perfect storm,” will require collective actions, collaboration, and flexibility at unprecedented levels.

Police Recruitment and the New Economy

In 2006, many in law enforcement were concerned about the public sector recruitment crisis and the dearth of candidates interested in careers in policing.8 Times have changed. Police executives today are more worried about avoiding layoffs and other cutbacks and are less distressed over recruitment. With current levels of joblessness, the conditions have shifted to an employer’s market. Those lucky enough to have money to hire can be relatively selective given the current low demands and high supply of candidates. Yet whether the economic conditions favor an employer’s or an employee’s market, fundamental issues such as hiring and retaining qualified officers who possess the requisite skill levels, the aptitudes, and the ethical qualities remain invariable. After decades of progress made in the professionalization, the legitimacy, and the adoption of the community policing philosophy across our vocation, we cannot afford to lose momentum by cutting corners during an economic crisis. We must continue to be vigilant about critical human resource qualifications, particularly considering the profound impact that recruitment and retention have on the quality of police services and the community policing mission.

The Integral Role of Community Policing for a Balanced, Forward-Looking Approach

As director of the COPS Office, I would be remiss if I did not stress the importance of community policing in the face of both tough economic conditions and the dynamic global threat environment. While I have heard reference to the need to shut down community policing programs or eliminate community policing officers, I do not think that is the right track. Community policing has taught us that the building of relationships and the solving of problems are more important, not less, in challenging times such as these.

Collaborative partnerships, problem-solving approaches, and the organizational transformation of law enforcement agencies that have been advanced under the philosophy of community policing have helped build and sustain trust in countless communities and have improved the manner in which local, tribal, state, and federal agencies work together. Increases in police legitimacy and procedural justice have paid dividends, particularly in communities that have historically felt disenfranchised and have had adverse relations with police in the past. These advances represent the core values of American law enforcement in a democratic society.

There are practical reasons for expanding community policing in these challenging economic times. The most important of these is that police must rely on residents and business purveyors to share information about crime and disorder in order to engage in effective problem solving to maintain public order and curtail crime. While some would argue that we can no longer afford the “luxury” of community policing, I am confident that the vast majority of law enforcement executives embrace the realization that we cannot afford to dispense with the ideals and practices of community policing.

Today’s community policing is not an alternative strategy to “traditional” or “reactive” policing. Rather, it is best seen as a perspective that can be in balance with and complement emerging new policing approaches, including intelligence-led policing, predictive policing, and SMART policing.9 The COPS Office looks forward to continuing to work with local, state, and tribal leadership as we resolve new challenges and develop innovative approaches to our ever-changing communities, nation, and world.

Next Steps

I encourage you to read the full report, The Impact of the Economic Downturn on American Police Agencies, and to continue the dialogue among your colleagues.10 While the report may represent the most comprehensive discussion of the topic to date, we have only scratched the surface on the effect of the new economy on policing services. I hope and trust that the report will set the stage for what will become a more robust discussion as the effects of the economic downturn continue to change the face of American policing. I encourage you to share your challenges and successes with your colleagues. On behalf of my colleagues at the federal level, we look forward to learning more about your experiences shared through the IACP, the COPS Office, and other components of the U.S. Department of Justice. ■

Bernard K. Melekian was announced the Director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services by Attorney General Eric Holder on October 5, 2009. Before this appointment, Melekian served for more than 35 years at the local level, first with the Santa Monica, California, Police Department; and more recently as chief of the Pasadena, California, Police Department for 13 years, during which he also held the positions of acting fire chief and interim city manager. He retired from the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve in 2009, after 28 years of service.

1U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing services, The Impact of the Economic Downturn on American Police Agencies, October 2011, (accessed November 15, 2011).
2Data to assess trends through 2008 are available from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), which is the United States’ primary source of criminal justice statistics. Data used here are compiled from across BJS’s periodic censuses and surveys of law enforcement agencies. Census data are available in Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, 2008, by Brian A. Reaves, NCJ 233982 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, July 26, 2011), (accessed November 15, 2011); and survey data are available at Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS), Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, (accessed November 15, 2011).
3Joseph Goldstein, “Police Force Nearly Halved, Camden Feels Impact,” New York Times, March 6, 2011, (accessed November 15, 2011).
4Major Cities Chiefs Association, “Police Economic Challenges Survey Results” (unpublished survey, Sun Valley, Idaho, 2011).
5International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Policing in the 21st Century: Preliminary Survey Results (Alexandria, Va., April 2011), (accessed November 16, 2011); Police Executive Research Forum, Critical Issues in Policing Series: Is the Economic Downturn Fundamentally Changing How We Police? (Washington, D.C., December 2010), (accessed November 16, 2011).
6IACP, Policing in the 21st Century.
7Gary Cordner, “The Architecture of U.S. Policing: Variations among the 50 States,” Police Practice and Research 12, no. 2 (April 2011): 107–119.
8See, for instance, William Woska, “Police Officer Recruitment: A Public-Sector Crisis,” The Police Chief 73, no. 10 (October 2006): 52–59, (accessed November 16, 2011).
9Funded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Smart Policing Initiative is led by the Center for Naval Analysis and partners with select police agencies to identify, evaluate, and disseminate locally developed evidence-based solutions to serious crime problems. For information, see (accessed November 16, 2011).
10U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing services, The Impact of the Economic Downturn on American Police Agencies.

Please cite as:

Bernard K. Melekian, "Policing in the New Economy: A New Report on the Emerging Trends from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services," The Police Chief 79 (January 2012): 16–19.

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From The Police Chief, vol. 79, no. 1, January 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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