By Kevin Johnson
WASHINGTON — Police agencies across the country are recruiting thousands of civilians for a growing number of duties previously performed by uniformed cops, in an unusual concession to local budget cuts.
The positions — some paid and others volunteer — are transforming everyday citizens into crime-scene investigators, evidence gatherers and photographers in what some analysts suggest is a striking new trend in American policing.
"It's all being driven by the economy and we should expect to see more of it," says University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, who analyzes law enforcement practices. "As budgets are squeezed, an increasing number of duties are going to be moved off officers' plates."
The chief opponents of the movement are police union leaders who say cash-strapped agencies are lowering standards and undermining professionalism in the ranks. In some cases, the civilian positions circumvent pay and benefit obligations outlined in hard-fought labor contracts, says Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO).
"You want the real deal when you call 911," Johnson says.
Among the agencies expanding civilians' roles:
*San Francisco. Police officials plan to hire 16 civilians to investigate burglaries and other property crimes. The $1 million pilot program and others like it aim to allow officers — whose numbers are fewer — to focus on violent crime. Assistant Police Chief Thomas Shawyer says the civilians will save up to $40,000 per person in training, equipment and benefit costs required to hire an officer.
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*Mesa, Ariz. Eight civilian investigators hit the streets in June 2009 when the department could not afford to hire uniformed police. They respond to property-related offenses, including burglary, fraud and vehicle theft. They lift fingerprints, photograph crime scenes and interview witnesses and victims, but do not carry guns, Sgt. Stephanie Derivan says. She says the department saves about $15,000 per investigator in salary.
*Durham, N.C. Civilian volunteers help police canvass neighborhoods after murders and other violent crimes. Police Chief Jose Lopez says other volunteers in city-issued cars patrol shopping centers during the holiday seasons and conduct property checks for residents away from home. "They are additional eyes and ears for us," he says.
Not everyone is so enthusiastic.
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"For most people, the only contact they have with local government is the police department," NAPO's Johnson says.