Michael J. Carroll, Chief of Police, West Goshen Township Police Department, West Chester, Pennsylvania
his is a challenging time to be a police chief. Agencies around the world are struggling to provide their communities with the services they expect and deserve, while at the same time, departmental budgets are being slashed and their capabilities reduced. Police chiefs are now confronted with decisions that may fundamentally alter their approach to protecting their communities and the citizens they serve.
Unfortunately, many agencies have already moved beyond the “easy” decisions. Last year, at the outset of this economic downturn, many agencies were forced to tighten their belts and cut back on many important programs and initiatives that supplemented our traditional patrol functions and played a key role in their crime prevention and community outreach efforts. All too often, valuable programs like after-school diversion programs, neighborhood watch, special outreach efforts for the elderly or disadvantaged youths, and school resource officers fell victim to declining resources.
Now, as economic difficulties have continued, many departments are faced with having to reduce core policing services and reducing the size of their police force. For example, like many states, my home state of Pennsylvania has experienced furloughs, staff reductions, and, as a last resort, the dissolution or combination of law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, we know the consequences of these cuts, increased crime and violence and less secure communities.
And it is not just cuts to law enforcement programs that will drive increases in crime and violence. The loss of many community-based programs that prevent recidivism—such as those that address pretrial support, offender reentry, drug and alcohol abuse, and even homeless shelters—will impact community safety. Past experience has shown when these support groups stop helping, offenders start re-offending.
Meanwhile, traditional acts of crime and violence have not slowed down because of the economic crisis. In fact, a broader concern is that criminals may be able to sniff out weaknesses in police capacity (such as fewer patrols or a less visible presence) and take advantage of those opportunities.
In addition, not only have incidents of crime increased but also the types of crime we see are frequently more serious. For example, I believe that experience has shown that we could witness an increase in confrontational incidents such as bar fights or road rage, domestic violence, and other incidents that result from increased economic stress. At the same time, we are witnessing an increase in financial crimes, such as credit fraud and identity theft.
Clearly, these are challenging times, and our agencies and our communities will look to us, as police leaders, for guidance. That is why it is our responsibility to prepare as best we can for these challenges as well as those that may arise in the weeks, months, and years ahead. It is also our responsibility to work with our communities and prepare them for the possible impact the economic downturn will have on crime, on our departments, and on our neighborhoods.
We need to work with our elected officials and governing bodies, which need to understand that budget cuts will limit the roles of law enforcement agencies to simply reacting to acts of crime and violence as they occur, rather than focusing on preventing them. We also need to work with community leaders to find new and innovative ways to fight crime and seek out non-profit, community, and private sector groups to help bridge the gaps for vital technology upgrades and slashed training budgets.
There is no doubt that deep budget cuts represent a significant challenge to a law enforcement agency’s ability to police its community effectively. Quite frankly, it is a challenge that can seem, at times, to be overwhelming. However, at the same time, we know that crisis often brings out the best in each of us, and experience has shown many of our most effective crime reduction and crime prevention tools have been the result of innovation that emerged from a crisis situation. I have no doubt that today’s law enforcement leaders will continue to rise to the challenge. ■