The Unintended Defunding Threat to American Policing and Public Safety

by | Sep 8, 2020 | Public Security Solutions | 0 comments |

Technology’s Key Role in Bolstering Community Safety

A major change in U.S. policing is likely underway. Some seek to purposefully defund (or divest, or re-imagine, or under fund) the police while others fear a future without adequate police protection. Virtually every day we see this story playing out in the news, political campaign ads and on social media platforms.

Indeed, society’s response to recent police use-of-force events may lead to intentional short-term defunding — or underfunding — of a region’s police force. But the more alarming outcome would likely involve an unintentional but de facto, largescale and long-term loss of police protection through significant staffing impacts.

Beleaguered police officers who have steadfastly believed in the value of their work are now seriously questioning whether they have a role to play in today’s police service. When asked to retreat in the face of crime, their core values of right and wrong are being rattled and some are deciding to pass the baton on to the next generation. The problem is there’s a serious shortage of people interested in becoming a member of the next generation of police officers.

While many controversial police encounters exist in history, events in 2014 (New York, Eric Garner; Ferguson, Michael Brown) and 2015 (Baltimore, Freddie Gray; Chicago, Laquan McDonald), led to a much higher level of public police criticism. In the years since, a steady challenge shouldered by police executives has been centered on recruiting and retaining personnel to support the policing needs of their communities.

Just weeks before the recent all-out assault on American policing, a February 8 story in the New York Post, titled America’s Shrinking Police Forces Could Spell Trouble for Our Safety was published. This story referred to a 2019 Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) paper called, The Workforce Crisis and What Police Agencies are Doing about It.”  

The PERF report points to three major pressure points:

(1) Fewer police department applicants

(2) Officers leaving their departments and profession, and

(3) 8.5% of officers eligible to retire along with 15.5% becoming eligible within just five years.

In addition to societal pressures leading to a reduction in potential applicants, the psychological impacts of police work have serious documented consequences for both current officers and potential applicants.

Suicide among police personnel is now more common than police dying in the line of duty! Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, shows that the suicide rate for police officers is 40% higher than the general population. And while the causes of suicide are undoubtedly complex, the effects of societal pressures on individual officers is taken personally by those who thought they were doing what was expected of them…protecting and serving the public welfare. Add in extra work hours, restrictions on vacation and weak support from elected officials, and the future looks grim.

 

Law Enforcement Response

Recently we’ve seen news coverage of looters in Chicago and elsewhere continuing to engage in organized, illegal theft even when cops were just a few feet away. It appeared that the looters did not fear arrest. Likewise, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse did not seem to fear arrest in Kenosha while he was walking with an AR 15 rifle near police. And in Portland, no matter the “side,” involved people are sensing and exploiting the situation based on over-restrained and outnumbered police.

Police leaders are commonly issuing orders to avoid engagement because the risks are too high. Elected officials sometimes say things such as, “We appreciate the restraint shown by our police.” Unfortunately, some police officers may end up believing that any confrontation is bad or too risky.  Runaway crime could result and may, in fact, already be occurring.

Police leaders are now stuck in a balancing act where they need to stay closely attuned to political change agents and flexing with the times. As some have said, “You’re either at the table or you’re on the table.”

Some police leaders are doing their best to encourage and support their police teams. They’ve talked about the need to “do what’s right,” pointing to the high calling of helping people even when it may not be popular. These not-so-clear, fence-walking efforts can help a few officers come out from laying low, turtle-shell mode to do their job, which, by the way, includes arresting wrongdoers.

Some, however, will probably be a little slower to respond — taking a safer “wait-and-see” approach. And, yes, police will respond to calls, write reports and talk to people about crime. 

But will they jump out of their police car and chase a thief running away from the scene of a crime? Will the police officer feel like someone has their back when they engage in the real, unpredictable, and sometimes dangerous work that’s part and parcel of police work? Maybe not.

As with all professions, cops are individuals and each will respond differently. But rest assured, under the current milieu, most police officers will reprioritize their personal work ethos. Catching criminals could take a backseat to doing what it takes to keep their jobs.

Police executives know that, yes, a few cops are lazy, drawing a paycheck and doing just enough to stay out of trouble. Many others, however, are hardworking officers, getting out of their police cars and talking with people, diligently chasing crime leads, and constantly watching over their beats. Their attitude is any crime could reflect poorly on them.

Clearly, between the two types of officers described, the second will be the one who draws heat and will likely need to make some dramatic changes to their work habits. The lazy officer, however, will be just fine because the future of policing appears to place more value on the less visible and less engaged police officer.

Unfortunately, it’s the hard-working officer who’s essentially targeted in today’s police-change climate.  Positive practices like proactive policing, community engagement, broken windows policing, CompStat, evidence-based policing, and even community policing — all of which have been used by progressive police agencies over the past 20-plus years –have been criticized as inappropriate approaches to proper policing.

The real challenge for police leaders today is to help their troops feel the sense that their troops are involved in useful and meaningful work. Sadly, however, many officers today feel that their work lacks true meaning and is no longer appreciated by the very people they seek to serve.

 

 The Trifecta of Change: COVID, Social Unrest and the Election Cycle

A nearly “perfect” set-up for change occurred in 2020. COVID has led to events, such as budget impacts, the release of thousands of prisoners, higher impacts on those who are economically distressed, and across-the-board pent-up emotions.

With the death of George Floyd, which was reprehensible, much of the pent-up COVID frustrations were directed toward the police. Campaign Zero (2015), Black Lives Matter (2013), and other organized groups were in position and responded, grabbing the country’s attention from the worst pandemic in our nation’s history and gaining widespread support.

As if by fate, COVID and the “Minneapolis spark” happened during an election cycle. At the local level, some city councils, school boards, colleges and county officials are discussing ways to reduce police funding. Some politicians may see the COVID budget crunch and the pressure to reduce police funding as interconnected – i.e., solve one by satisfying the other. As we have seen in the past, long-range planning during an election cycle is conveniently replaced with a poll-based calculus.

In national politics, political ads, seemingly supportive of the police, suggest a lawless future. Professional police leaders normally try to position themselves outside of politics, but the heavily lopsided climate of the day makes most cops think they have friends on one side and enemies on the other.

The politicizing of police service should be viewed as off-limits because the police should be viewed as neutral and be accessible and even-handed regardless of political leanings. Unfortunately, the central theme of policing on the political front today could give rise to furthering the divide between the police and communities they serve.

 

Our Expectations for the Police

As police leaders struggle with slashed budgets and staffing shortages, society may expect too much from the police. Some expect police response to millions of unpredictable, quickly unfolding and dangerous situations to occur with robotic precision. Unfortunately, limitations on human perception, strength and the negative performance impacts of fear, all contribute to less than ideal outcomes.

Further, fewer police officers will be available to handle a static or growing volume of calls. Plus decisions to release inmates from jails and prisons will likely impact crime rates. Criminals who know that the police’s use-of-force options are constrained, may decide to flee or fight their arrest in the hope of triggering an officer’s decision to avoid the risk and back down from taking action.

Despite law enforcement officers in the U.S. undergoing thousands of hours of training, along with additional annual training imposed by state licensing authorities, those engaged in the current change movement have focused on training. For decades, training for those resisting or fighting an arrest has included the edict to gain control quickly, so the amount of time spent in a high-risk encounter is lower, which lowers the risk to the officer and suspect.

But the cold hard truth is this: using decisive force appears ugly to most people. A constrained use of force may look better initially, but it’s an ineffective practice, typically leading to a prolonged fight where the officer could be perceived as inept.

Officers who take it slowly may become endangered and then be forced to escalate action to a higher level of force than could have been effective in the first place. Prolonged fights that end in the death of a police officer result in a somber and sad police funeral. For those ending in the death of the other person, the officer will be disciplined, sued or fired for not being properly trained or criticized for being unable to do his or her job.

With all the pressure on policing, the future appears more uncertain than ever. Law enforcement is now facing new expectations, such as:

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1. The need to minimize their visual impact because some people who see a gun and badge feel anxiety.

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2. A responsibility to know, in advance, whether or not a citizen’s call for help warrants a response from a gun-carrying police officer.

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3. A need to provide full and immediate transparency for any use-of-force situation.

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4. Giving job-firing authority to untrained citizens who review police use-of-force incidents.

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5. And to be effective against increases in crime with less societal support and funding.

With budget cuts and a “new” perspective on the realities that face police departments and the citizenry (some have called it “reimagined policing”), consider the following technological options that, when guided by democratic and legal principles, can effectively assist in providing safer communities:

The Future of Policing—The Role of Technology

As politicians and police leaders consider ways to counter several key matters, such as staffing shortages, fewer interested police applicants, growing crime and fears of a lawless society, technology should play a supportive role.

With budget cuts and a “new” perspective on the realities that face police departments and the citizenry (some have called it “reimagined policing”), consider the following technological options that, when guided by democratic and legal principles, can effectively assist in providing safer communities:

Public Safety Cameras

Public safety cameras deployed in public places may help people feel safer, deter crime and represent a trade-off for having fewer police. People in private parking garages, public malls, casinos, corporate work spaces, convenience stores, or passing through busy intersections, have come to expect the presence of cameras to prevent wrongdoing and to keep them safer. Clearly, cameras in public spaces are viewed differently and have mixed support.

Some jurisdictions have embraced these systems to prevent crime and address the public’s fear of crime in places like parks and high crime areas. Others view them negatively as “big brother.” In all cases, any publicly deployed cameras should not be permitted to peer into spaces which would not be ordinarily available to someone standing in a public place. For example, a camera mounted high on a traffic light should not be positioned to see into a nearby window, unless seeing through the window would be equally possible by a person standing on the street.

Transparent/Public Access to Video Data

Transparent/public access to video data could reduce anxiety. Privacy worries are sometimes rooted in the idea that there is a secret database or the government spying on individuals. Perhaps, to reduce anxiety about public cameras, video from such systems should be available to everyone—not just the police or government.

Technology platforms are currently available for local government to make such video publicly accessible. In the public video model: (1) the press could review and report on public video, (2) victims of crime could hunt for evidence on their own behalf, (3) the police could be more efficient in responding (through a real-time crime center), and (4) investigators could efficiently obtain better evidence to hold criminals accountable.

Another option (as an alternative to “wide open”): establish a citizen panel, instead of the police, to control of all public video. This panel could make decisions on releasing video to the police, the press, courts, or the public in response to crime or requests.

NOTE: In the publicly available video model, a built-in delay could be integrated to ensure criminals have no advantage and to make sure people cannot engage in illegal stalking behaviors.

Automated License Plate Reader 

Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) systems are proven effective at favorably impacting crime. These automated systems alert the police for wanted vehicles. When linked to Real Time Crime Centers (RTCCs) or dispatchers, they can be used to vector-in officers to stop criminals earlier in the crime cycle, thereby preventing crimes which might have occurred otherwise. Locating vehicles used in the commission of crime and vehicles known to be used by persons who are wanted by the police are of critical value—especially if the agency is understaffed.

When a child is abducted, or a rapist is fleeing in a vehicle, police would love to be able to instantly deploy hundreds of officers to key locations and watch for the suspect vehicle—ALPRs make this possible through cameras, without the cost-prohibitive personnel expense. Stolen vehicles are sometimes used in the commission of crimes, so having automated systems to spot these vehicles can help.

After-the-fact analysis, through analytic enabled systems, allow investigators to comb through thousands of vehicle movement records in minutes to find the proverbial needle in the haystack which can help identify and eventually arrest criminals.

Real Time Crime Center

Establishing a Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) is now one of the least expensive technology options available. Historically, because of high costs, RTCCs were only used by large agencies to improve situational awareness (picture a room with numerous video monitors on a wall and staff watching over them). Now, for smaller agencies, the functionality of a RTCC can be available to a field supervisor on the in-car computer or smart phone/tablet. 

Technology advances now allow for both public and private camera feeds, maps, responder location information, live streaming video to and from the field, drone video, and call data (through Computer Aided Dispatch—CAD) to be graphically depicted on a single display. Here, agencies can quickly assess field situations to make response decisions. As an example, equipped with real time information, police leaders could decide to not send police to a situation which might be more appropriately handled by mental health authorities or homeless support services.

This newest technology, through ICU Technologies and Fūsus, leverages existing private camera systems to keep costs down.

Automated Traffic Enforcement

Automated traffic enforcement could relieve the police of highly visible traffic enforcement duties. New pressures on law enforcement have caused political and police leaders to question historically prominent roles. In Berkeley, California, a 50% defunding decision includes the concept of no longer providing sworn staff for traffic enforcement.

Establishing a lower profile and less visually impactful presence in society is now a goal. Promoting traffic safety through non-sworn staff and computer-augmented camera systems may help with this goal. Local and state laws could be changed to provide local jurisdictions the option of substituting technology for officers on the street.

One model of traffic enforcement includes the concept of codifying some violations as a civil matter between the government and the registered owner of the car—not the driver (like a parking citation). Another option for some lower level violations could be to disallow the “stopping” of a driver; instead, with support of video or other tech-derived evidence, processing the violation by mailing a citation.

Building a “smart city” infrastructure could be part of a comprehensive, jurisdiction-wide, long-term safety plan. Tethering together all the various technologies mentioned here could become important in the future.

Connectivity continues to be a challenge for schools and local government. Areas with slow, unreliable or no internet/cell service should be addressed by local leaders so gaps are minimized and safety can be promoted. Further, reliance on the same vulnerable cell-based systems used for public internet access could be viewed as irresponsible. In recent years, the FCC has opened a part of the radio spectrum (Citizen Band Radio System—CBRS, 3.5 GHz).

Forward thinking schools and cities are developing their own private LTE to avoid high dependency on publicly available infrastructure. Motorola Nitro is one such system that provides reliable/secure communication and internet access to schools for equitable, remote learning. Recognizing where things are moving in the future, major manufacturers, such as Apple, LG, HP, Google, Arris, Lenovo, Motorola, Netgear, Nokia, and Samsung all have end-user equipment currently manufactured to connect directly to CBRS (in addition to WiFi).

Cities and schools should consider joining forces to ensure there is a plan for the next 5 years—not just the next 5 months.

Body-Worn Cameras 

Body-worn Cameras, (BWCs) are believed to provide improved oversight and transparency with the police. BWCs have been embraced by law enforcement with an estimated more than half of all agencies deploying these systems. While initial claims of reduced complaints and use-of-force claims were widely believed, recent research finds that BWCs “have not had statistically significant or consistent effects on most measures of officer and citizen behavior or citizens’ views of police. Expectations and concerns surrounding BWCs among police leaders and citizens have not yet been realized” (Criminology & Public Policy, March 24, 2019).

To satisfy public demands, deploying BWCs may make sense, but agencies should do so understanding BWCs will not necessarily favorably impact crime or help in any statistically valid way.

Cell Tower Simulation

Cell Tower Simulation capacity provides law enforcement significant leads when crimes occur or near real-time intelligence on the movement of criminals. Responsible deployment, transparent use-case policies and proper administrative controls can provide the public with reassurance that this technology is not too intrusive. These systems are expensive and can be perceived negatively as their core function is secret and normally exclusively controlled by the police.

CONCLUSION

The concepts surrounding “low-touch policing” will likely be made more feasible with the addition of key technology. The intense pressure on the policing profession will lead to greater understaffing. Even jurisdictions with no intention of reducing its number of law enforcement officers may be faced with the stark problem of being unable to fill policing jobs.

Leaders will need to find alternatives to traditional policing. Technology options will likely play a pivotal role by serving as a workforce multiplier and squeezing efficiencies from those who remain in the profession. While some seasoned law enforcement leaders may “retire away” from the problem, those remaining and those new to top-level positions should consider making a concerted effort to plan and budget for the long-term challenges ahead.

About the Author

Brian Uhler

Brian T. Uhler served in virtually all law enforcement roles from Police Officer to Chief of Police in three diverse agencies (in Texas, serving a city of 285,000 people, and in two California agencies: the UCSF Police Department and South Lake Tahoe Police Department). He received his master’s degree in public administration from Texas A & M, Corpus Christi, and is an FBI National Academy graduate. He currently works at ICU Technologies where he continues to focus on helping law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. He encourages those with an interest in expanding the use of public safety technology to message or e-mail (buhler@icu-techinc.com).

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