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Back to Archives | Back to March 2009 Contents 

President's Message

Leadership in a Troubled Economy

By Russell B. Laine, Chief of Police, Algonquin, Illinois

Russell B. Laine, Chief of Police,
Algonquin, Illinois

ommunities and states throughout the United States and nations around the world are confronting severe economic hardships. The scope and the scale of this crisis have left many without jobs or dependable income and have depleted the resources of local and state governments. It is clearly a difficult time.

This economic downturn presents a real challenge to police chiefs, the departments we lead, and the communities we serve. It will affect not only the incidence of crime in our communities but also the types of crime we see. It will impact the resources we have available for patrol, and it will also reduce, if not eliminate, many of the private-sector resources on which we have come to rely as partners in the criminal justice system.

Therefore, it is incumbent on us, as police leaders, to prepare as best we can for the challenges we are currently confronting as well as those that may arise in the weeks, months, and years ahead. Broadly speaking, we need to assess the impact the economic downturn will have on crime, on our departments, on our communities, and on the justice system as a whole.

For example, although there might not be a clear consensus among researchers that difficult economic times lead to increased crime, I believe that experience has shown that we could witness an increase in homicides as economic stress leads to increases in domestic violence and other confrontational incidents (such as bar fights or road rage). At the same time, we are witnessing an increase in financial crimes, such as credit fraud and identity theft.

In addition, in difficult economic times, we often witness a rise in criminality from unlikely sources. For example, several times in the last few months, my officers have been called to local schools because children were caught stealing food from the cafeteria line because they had none at home. Tragically, their parents had lost their jobs, and their families were living under the threat of foreclosure. Other chiefs have reported numerous incidents where normally law-abiding citizens perpetrated bank or convenience store robberies because they believed they were out of other options.

At the same time, traditional acts of crime and violence have not slowed down because of the economic crisis. In fact, a broader concern is that although criminals might not be that smart, they can sniff out weaknesses in police capacity (such as fewer patrols or a less visible presence) and take advantage of those opportunities.

Unfortunately, this reduction in police capacity is already happening. The budget cuts that are currently being forced on police agencies are substantial and likely to grow. In the face of these cuts, departments both large and small are in turn being forced to cut or delay funding for vital technology upgrades, to slash training budgets, and to reduce or eliminate administrative support personnel. Even more disturbing is the fact that many departments have had no choice but to reduce their numbers of sworn law enforcement personnel.

In addition, as budgets shrink, agencies are left with no choice but to slash programs that play a key role in crime prevention: after-school programs, neighborhood watch, special programs for the elderly or disadvantaged youths, and school resource officers. And although these programs are designed to support our primary patrol efforts, losing these programs will, without a doubt, destabilize things in our communities.

Magnifying the loss of these programs is the fact that many community-based programs that support crime prevention—such as those that address pretrial support, offender reentry, drug and alcohol abuse, and even homeless shelters—are all endangered in some way due to then economic downturn. And past experience has shown when these support groups stop helping, offenders start reoffending.

Individually, each of these factors represents a significant challenge to a law enforcement agency’s ability to police its community effectively. Combined, they represent a serious threat to the safety of the public we are sworn to protect.

To address this problem we, as police chiefs, must speak out. We need to work with our elected officials and governing bodies, which need to understand that budget cuts and force reductions will leave law enforcement agencies unable to mount proactive policing programs and will instead limit their roles simply to reacting to acts of crime and violence as they occur, rather than focusing on preventing them. If that happens, it is likely that violent crime will rise in many communities and that the quality of life will deteriorate for all. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVII, no. 3, March 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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