By Scott Harris, Freelance Writer
he process of purchasing and budgeting is not one of the more glamorous jobs in law enforcement. However, it is one of the most important, and being prepared for the process can help stop complications before they start—and help departments work more efficiently in an era of constrained resources.
|Note: Police Chief magazine, from time-to-time, offers feature-length articles on products and services that are useful to law enforcement administrators. This article features purchasing best practices for law enforcement leaders.|
From light bulbs to big-ticket technology buys, law enforcement leaders with purchasing and budgeting experience say that understanding the terrain—procedural nuts and bolts, individual roles, and the needs and wants of a department—before getting started is key to recognizing and avoiding pitfalls.
“Establish clear relationships and goals and understand the purchasing process,” said Tom Lawrence, assistant chief of the Dallas, Texas, Police Department. “Make a flow chart with the steps. Some parts of the process are determined by state law; understand what those parts are and how they work ahead of time. Understand who is the customer and who is the project manager. Understand the bidding process and how vendors are graded and selected. Sometimes 15 percent is counted for this, and [sometimes] 20 percent is counted for that. Know what the city does and how they do it. Do they make selections based on the cost of a vendor, the best value, or something else?”1
As the primary coordinator of the Dallas Police Department’s Homeland Security and Special Operations Division budget, Lawrence said he learned early on that an ounce of proverbial prevention was worth a pound of cure. That is how Lawrence said he “hammered out an $8 million budget in an hour and a half,” and with zero prior meetings.
According to Lawrence, the Dallas Police Department is currently undergoing a major technology overhaul, including the purchase of more than 500 new surveillance cameras. Doing homework and building relationships in advance and making sure the people in the room have decision-making authority helped the process advance much more smoothly.
“For contract selection, you need to have a heavyweight in the room,” Lawrence said. “If there’s no executive in the room, have them give you the purchasing or negotiating authority.”
Learning more about the technology landscape can help, too. Information technology firms working nationally in public safety and law enforcement include Michigan-based OEM Micro Solutions, Florida-based SunGard Public Sector, and Moonblink Communications, headquartered in California.
Part of that learning can be enhanced by soliciting requests for proposals (RFPs) rather than attempting to identify a vendor or sketch out details unilaterally.
“One of the things we learned is that you don’t know what you don’t know,” Lawrence said. “Don’t assume or pretend you’re an expert in this stuff. We do RFPs, and that gives us a lot more leverage, and it gives us some creative ideas we may not have thought of. We give them the vision, and the vendors bring us their solution.”
Be mindful of potential legal entanglements, especially when a department or leader already does business with a certain vendor. Even if no conflict of interest exists, rules are usually in place that can cause problems if even the perception of a conflict could arise.
“The tendency is to get caught up in what a vendor can deliver, especially when you already have a relationship with somebody,” Lawrence said. “Understand those conflict-of-interest rules, and know when you can and can’t talk to a vendor. You don’t even want to have the appearance of a conflict. Be up front with the selection committee about any relationships, but also with your bosses and the city manager. Let them know you’re going to be impartial or that you’re going to excuse yourself.”
It is important to remember that other government agencies and entities—including those all-important stakeholders at city hall—can sometimes function more slowly or less enthusiastically than might be desirable. Knowing the process can help keep things running smoothly while also allowing those in the department to set realistic timelines.
“You can lessen your headaches by being prepared for delays, especially with technology,” Lawrence said. “We’re not buying widgets. The most important thing is to have established relationships with the other city departments involved.”
Unfortunately, budgeting can be a drawn-out process, no matter how prepared you are. Captain William Clary, who oversees the operating budget for the Laconia, New Hampshire, Police Department, said he often begins work on a budget up to a year and a half before it is finalized.
“Budget presentations start in December, but the budget actually takes effect July 1,” Clary said. “One of the difficulties we have is doing it so far in advance. We do it 18 months in advance sometimes.”2
Clary said the department has a budget of $4.8 million, $2.7 million of which is salary. That means comparatively little latitude when it comes to discretionary spending.
One of the tricks? Pooling resources with the city government and outsourcing whenever possible. A wide variety of companies exist that can handle various aspects of agency or department operations.
“We outsource a lot of things that we do, such as building maintenance,” Clary said. “I don’t have to worry about light bulbs and carpet cleanings. That takes some of the burden off of us. Outsourcing things like [vehicle] fleet maintenance through the city is cheaper than [individual vehicle] maintenance.”
Fleet management firms like Massachusetts-based Chevin Fleet Solutions are available to help manage the various special needs of a police fleet. In fact, if there is a service or product regularly used by a law enforcement agency, chances are there is a firm designed to handle it. From digital marketing companies like Zco Corporation of New Hampshire to janitorial supply vendors like Miami, Florida-based Eco Concepts Incorporated, to ticketing solutions providers like Oklahoma-based Saltus Technologies, can be helpful. There also are service providers for more human endeavors; for example, Dallas, Texas-based PIO Services Group specializes in media relations support specifically for small and medium-sized law enforcement agencies. Communications agencies can handle everything from strategic planning, in the case of Virginia-based Parrish Strategic Solutions, to negotiations with communications vendors, in the case of Missouri-based Praecom Consulting. Human resources needs can be outsourced to firms like California-based Human Resource Compensation and Management.
There are plenty of opportunities to think (and buy) smarter. At the Laconia Police Department, staff members meet each month to discuss new fiscal efficiencies. Consultants are also available to help agencies foster these efficiencies around purchasing and operating. Michigan-based Redstone Public Safety Consulting Group, for example, consists of active agency chiefs who can provide advice on how to deliver public safety services with reduced funding.
To be certain, every little bit helps, both from a financial and a political perspective.
“We save on everything from printer costs to fuel costs, small-ticket items and large-ticket items,” Clary said. “We look at phones, postage meter, and trash pickup. The monthly meeting makes employees feel they have a stake in it. That makes everything easier. Whether a certain change results in us saving $10 a month or $100 a month, it’s great. And the city council likes to hear it.”
When it is time to map out the proverbial wish list for the year, it is important to have the right people in the room. Creating the right plan—and sticking to it—is an all-important, and perhaps deceptively difficult, aspect of sound fiscal management.
“One of the challenges is scheduling your purchases to what the funds were obligated for,” said Mike Horn, a former official with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency and now an independent consultant. “Toward the end of the year, there’s a scramble to spend. The spending in that case is not as effective as it should be. It is easy to buy technology equipment, for example. We bought things we didn’t need as a high priority.”3
Though subject matter experts are an important piece of the puzzle, it is important to counterbalance those voices with equally important perspectives.
“The best case scenario is the operations personnel weigh in on what is needed,” Horn said. “The engineers and technicians sometimes like technology for the sake of technology. We ask if they had this technology, how would they use it? It they don’t have an immediate answer, it’s probably not something you need to buy.” ♦
1Tom Lawrence, telephone interview with the author, January 23, 2013.
2William Clary, telephone interview with the author, January 18, 2013.
3Mike Horn, telephone interview with the author, January 11, 2013.
Please cite as:
Scott Harris, "Purchasing," Product Feature, The Police Chief 80 (April 2013): 66–67.