By Tristan Hallman
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — Dallas Police Chief David Brown has a plan to save taxpayer money next year: Hire officers below the attrition rate, get current officers out of desk jobs and back on the streets and hire some cheaper civilian employees to take their place.
Been there, done that, Brown's predecessors say. And it often came to a frustrating end in the long run.
"I watched it for 40 years," said former Chief Ben Click, who helmed the department from 1993 to 1999 after rising through the ranks in Phoenix. "Politically, what it does is upfront, it looks good. 'We're going to move sworn people back out on the street, and we're going to fill these desk jobs with lower-paid civilians. We're going to have these big salary savings. You don't have pension costs.'
"Then, what happens is, two or three or four years down the line, you come up with a tough budget year. So what they do is say, 'Well, we're not laying off any officers.'"
Bill Rathburn, the Dallas chief from 1991 to 1993, calls it "a vicious cycle." Civilian jobs often go on the chopping block to save more money. Then the department has to send cops back to their desks — with a shrunken roster of officers to boot.
"I've seen it throughout my career," said Rathburn, who worked for years in Los Angeles. "There has never been political support to retain civilians.
"It makes no sense, it's illogical. I don't know how you prevent that cycle from repeating itself."
Brown, a 31-year veteran of the department, said he understands the previous pitfalls of the staffing strategy, which he calls "community policing 2.1."
"We fully realize the history of how our civilian ranks have see-sawed back and forth, but we also believe their contribution is critical and our proposed expanded utilization of them can have a significant impact," he said in an email.
Brown's plan promises to save about $751,782 out of a budget that will hit $426 million this year. He plans to hire 165 officers next year instead of the 220 they have hired before. Brown wants to close that gap by sending 37 officers in desk jobs back to patrol. To fill the openings next year, he plans to hire about 20 more civilian employees, adding to the civilian force of about 553, and get more police gadgets, such as license plate readers and surveillance cameras.
The plan covers one year, and Brown said he will reassess again next year. But he said his goal is to be more efficient and get badges out from behind desks. And someone has to do those jobs.
Brown said he has worked on his plan for months and that he always tries to be a good steward of tax dollars. But his announcement came days after Mayor Mike Rawlings said the city would need to consider cuts to the public safety budget in light of a projected $30 million shortfall next budget year, which starts Oct. 1.
Some police association leaders criticized Brown's plan, saying that it is just a backdoor way to scale back the size of the force through attrition. On average, about 200 officers leave the department each year, meaning the department could end next budget year with fewer officers than this year.
Then, if the civilians are cut down the road, the department would have fewer officers on the roster to send back to desk jobs to take their places, amplifying the cutbacks.
Brown's plan, as it is structured now, could also push the city a little further away from its decades-old goal of having three officers for every 1,000 residents.
The department currently has more than 3,500 sworn officers. That figures to roughly 2.76 officers for every thousand people in the city.
The number has been slowly declining from a high of more 3.06 in 2010.
But falling below that goal isn't a big deal, said former chief David Kunkle, who held the post from 2004 to 2010.
"I have become convinced that the three officers per thousand wasn't a magic number," Kunkle said.
Kunkle, who was able to grow the force by hundreds of officers, said he noticed problems when the officer ratio was around 2.4 officers per thousand residents. But beyond that, managing resources is more important than hitting the goal.
Even Charles Terrell, a former City Council member and an architect of the three-officers standard, said he supports Brown's plan.
"The loss of officers is not so severe that the technology can't help balance it out," Terrell said.
Terrell is currently the chairman of Safer Dallas Better Dallas, a police booster group that funds some of the department's crime-fighting gadgets for crime hot spots with private philanthropy.
Former City Council member and current Safer Dallas Better Dallas president Gary Griffith, who served as the Public Safety Committee vice chair, said he will suggest to the chief, as a private citizen, that hiring should keep pace with attrition.
He said that he believes that it's easier for council members to drop police civilians because they don't work at City Hall and are less visible than many other city employees. But Griffith said the city's politicians should refrain from trimming the public safety budget unless they absolutely need to.
"When the cuts come, it ought to be looked at last and probably exempted from those if that department can make the case it doesn't have the fat in place or any room to make those adjustments," he said.
'A Shell Game'
Click, who called the budget battles over civilians "a shell game," said he understands why City Council members and the public allow the cycle to continue.
"You really only focus on that current budget year and upcoming budget year," Click said. "There is not much of a look back and not much of a look ahead. It's all about, 'How do we get through this next year?' And as a result, these things really aren't obvious."
In the 1990s, Click proposed a similar plan to Brown's. He turned more than 100 administrative jobs into civilian jobs and cut the number of sworn officers, which saved the department money.
Many of the civilian jobs were later cut to save more money, frustrating Click, who had fewer sworn officers and had to use some of them on desk jobs.
Kunkle, who called the cycle a "common frustration" among police chiefs, also saw both ends of the cycle. Early in his tenure, he brought in more civilians to fill desk jobs. Then, in 2009, after the economy had turned south, the city laid off 150 civilians and eliminated another 30 positions.
Kunkle said he remains a firm believer that putting civilians in as many jobs as possible is a good plan. Officers should be out on the street, he said, and keeping civilians around should be part of any long-term plan.
"The jobs that are cut still have to be done," he said. "It's not good management and a good use of public resources, and frankly not fair to the civilians who are hired."
Council member Sandy Greyson said she opposed cutting civilian employees during her previous council stint from 1997 to 2005. While she supports the hiring of civilians, she worries that Brown's plan could fall into the same "pendulum" of hiring civilians and later cutting them.
"I always thought that was sort of penny-wise and pound-foolish," she said.
Copyright 2014 The Dallas Morning News
McClatchy-Tribune News Service