Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are still experiencing the effects of a recovering economy. Lowered state funding continues to slash local budgets, compelling many departments to lay off officers. Agencies are faced with the choice to have their remaining officers focus on law enforcement or administrative duties, the former being the priority. As a result, they may look to engage people who are not sworn officers to complete critical administrative tasks.
The concept of civilianization is not a new one, but the shift toward civilianization that occurred near the end of the 20th century was substantial. In 1965, the ratio of sworn officers to civilians employed by law enforcement agencies was 8.3:1, and in 1995 the ratio was 2.6:1. In general, civilians have been employed to a greater extent in large metropolitan police departments than small departments. They are employed more in the west than the east, and also are employed in greater proportions in city and county departments than in state agencies.
Increasing civilian employment in law enforcement may help organizations address the diminished number of sworn officers. Civilianization of police departments offers many advantages and disadvantages for organizations that should be reviewed before making this transition.
Economic recovery does not reach local departments
The effects of last decade’s Great Recession on the economy extended well beyond Wall Street and the housing market. According to the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, law enforcement agencies are no longer certain they will receive enough funds to cover necessary expenses. An economy that is recovering elsewhere does not give these agencies optimism that their training resources will be restored to their former state.
A study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) found that 85 percent of organizations were forced to reduce their spending in 2011 and 98 percent said their budgets would at least be somewhat of a problem in the coming years. As a result, staff reductions—between 12,000 and 15,000 sworn officers were lost in a year due to financial constraints—critically impact training and travel. According to the Budget Control Act of 2011, discretionary security spending will nominally increase through 2021, but these increases are expected to fall short of inflation and previous rates of increase.
The economic downturn continues to affect many departments, according to a 2013 paper published by the Police Executive Research Forum: “[I]t is undeniable that when 40 percent of police departments are still facing upcoming cuts in their total funding, the field of policing is suffering.”
As a result of a budget deadlock in Illinois, the primary police training center for the Chicagoland area faced closure in November 2015 when the state did not pay its portion of the costs for the facility. In the previous two months, North East Multi-Regional Training canceled 100 classes, negatively impacting the 321 police agencies the facility serves.
Crisis intervention training is one critical program that lacked resources. According to The State Journal-Register, the disagreement about state budget deprived first responders funding to conduct CIT training in the first half of the fiscal year, meaning 200 officers missed out on the class. Without the top-down financial support of the past, agencies struggle to find ways to work around reduced budgets and staffing problems to meet training mandates.
Civilianization is an adaptive use of police staffing
One way to combat the effects of major budget cuts is to hire citizens into law enforcement positions. The practice allows sworn officers to focus on more specialized work while handing administrative tasks to capable civilians.
Since they are not required to undergo the same comprehensive training as uniformed police, civilian employees are able to receive targeted preparation for a specific role. Removing officers from these positions ultimately demands less training and a lower salary, with fewer overhead costs due to reduced fringe benefits. In addition, the National Criminal Justice Reference Service suggested that civilianization can improve relations between the community and law enforcement, allowing departments to become more familiar with problems affecting certain areas of their city or state and enabling civilians to feel as though they’re helping in ways that will affect their cities in the long run.
Although civilians have long been active in some law enforcement agencies, additional city agencies are becoming interested in the benefits of building their civilian workforce. In 2014, the Houston Police Department considered adding nonsworn employees to operations and command positions. Usually occupied by uniformed officers, 443 positions were identified as potential candidates for civilianization, including roles in narcotics and technical surveillance divisions. In 2015, the Denver Sheriff Department placed civilians in charge of mailroom functions, technology management, the Vehicle Impound Facility, and the Juvenile Work Program. The Corpus Christi Police Department benefits from civilianization in its Criminal Investigation and Animal Control divisions, but maintains that citizen employees perform mainly public service duties and are not permitted to use force, the Police Executive Research Forum reported.
There are opportunities for expanded civilian roles
In the cases discussed above, civilian personnel were assigned solely to administrative positions that avoid interference in investigations or other police matters. However, the concept of creating “parapolice” has also been proposed as a potential variant of civilianization. Parapolice have been used in some citizen service aspects such as community policing outreach programs, support programs, and even in some specific criminal investigation activities. These parapolice typically wear uniforms but are not armed and cannot use force. These parapolice have the potential to perform as equals to both the public and police, and could even help to bridge the growing gap between the two.
Despite proven advantages in service roles, some challenges still exist for using nonsworn staff. For example, they may not meet all the needs of the community. Since civilians are not required to take a public service oath, for instance, their authority could be questioned by both the community and sworn officers. Especially when nonsworn staff are put in charge of sensitive information, this perception risks disrupting morale and cultivating a harmful divide within departments, according to the NCJRS.
On some occasions, citizens may even require more training than initially expected. According to the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, civilianization of New Jersey and New York laboratories failed when training costs were deemed too high and no educated individuals were able to prepare the new workers.
As law enforcement continues to feel the effects of a recovering economy—mainly through reduced budgets and staffing issues—more departments may increase civilianization strategies. This practice is not a panacea for financial struggles, however, as it offers organizations both benefits and drawbacks to managing overall costs. The merits of hiring nonsworn personnel should be evaluated on a case by case basis. With such care, the promise of civilianization may allow agencies to use the special skills of sworn officers to their full effect.