Keeping your specialized units afloat in a budget crunch

What can you do to prevent your unit from falling beneath the budgetary axe?

Many aspects of the criminal justice system swing like a pendulum, but in years past we could always count on one rule: as long as there are bad guys there will be cops. Well, that has changed. Amid widespread (and worsening) economic troubles, there is hardly a state, city, or country village which has not experienced budget pains and whenever there are budget shortfalls, some services are reduced, contributions to community programs are delayed, and hiring freezes are put in place. Deeper cuts like “rolling layoffs” have been introduced. These cuts have not been limited to public service departments such as sanitation, tourism, or public works — they now include law enforcement positions.

Communities across the country have reached the point where they are willing to do anything to balance their budgets, including the laying off of police officers. Last year, the state of Michigan laid off 83 State Police cadets shortly after graduation. Tulsa has handed pink slips to 21 officers. Pittsburgh’s mayor has stated he is willing to lay off more than 100 officers to balance his city’s sinking bottom line. The list goes on and on.

When money needs to be saved and layoffs are on the table, other cuts are bound to be made and this includes specialized units. Detectives have been reassigned, helicopters have been grounded, mounted units disbanded, and SWAT teams have been reassigned to patrol. One recent example is when Baltimore announced it would dry dock its Harbor Unit, the only law enforcement presence available for more than 50 miles of the city’s waterfront.

What can you do to prevent your unit from falling beneath the budgetary axe?

You can choose to stay the course and hope that the powers that be will recognize the importance of your unit’s contributions (after all, if there wasn’t a real need for your specialty, they never would have invested all money necessary to purchase your equipment and train your members right?). Wrong. Chances are, no matter what your specialty and how important your contribution may have been in the past, we have entered a new era. Furthermore, specialized units all suffer from one major flaw: very few cops outside our individual communities understand the intricacies of what we do. Likewise, because an even smaller number of the public understand what we do, it’s unlikely there will be waves of protest outside city hall when the local paper carries the headline: “Mayor Sinks Police Boat Unit” or “Council Vote Sends Cops’ Horses to Pasture.”

Bottom line, our anonymity makes us an easy target.

But you can show the bosses — and the community — just how important your unit really is. Step out of the shadows and advertize what you do and expand on it. Doing just three things can help make your unit more visible, increasingly invaluable, and financially viable.

1.) Be Neighborly
If you’ve previously worked with neighboring departments in an informal manner, make it a matter of record — try to get the bosses in those neighboring departments reach out to your supervisors and make official requests when your assistance is needed. If possible, enter into official Memorandums of Understanding stating that you will provide this assistance when requested. If you are lucky these departments may be willing to kick in some of their own funds, at least enough to defer the costs associated with your services.

See if there are opportunities to contract with Federal agencies that may need the services you provide. You may discover that it is cheaper to pay you for the callouts rather than move one of their own units into an area they see as having a minimal case load. On the opposite side of that coin, these departments may offer to provide similar specialized services that your own department can benefit from, thus saving your department from incurring the costs of supporting additional units it may only use occasionally.

2.) Be Aggressive
Expand your capabilities and take on additional responsibilities. While few of us need additional work — let’s face it, sometimes it’s tough to complete what we are already tasked to do — it is better to be busy than nonexistent. Conduct joint activities with other units, pairing SWAT and Marine Patrol or the Mounted Unit with Community Policing. Likewise, you can take on a greater responsibility for general patrol in your normal area of activity. For example, if you’re on the Maritime Unit, instead of focusing only on water patrol, have your officers handle general enforcement duties on the ground within the waterfront district. This will help free up additional patrol officers for reassignment to other areas of your jurisdiction. Remember, the goal is to make your unit as valuable and visible as possible so that when it comes time to save money you are not the first put on the chopping block.

3.) Be Resourceful
Search out additional funding. Don’t count on the city council or the mayor’s office to go looking for funding for your unit — they probably don’t care enough to make the effort. Despite the economic difficulties there are still a wide variety of grants available to law enforcement. Your department may have already applied for funds available for general enforcement, equipment, and personnel costs, but there are some supervisors and agency administrators who have overlooked those grants which are aimed directly at specialized units.

Like anything else, most department administrators work under the mantra “cheap is good and free as better.” If they cannot obtain something for free, getting someone else to help pay for it is the next best thing. Get the help of an expert in obtaining law enforcement grants. You can begin by looking at PoliceOne’s PoliceGrantsHelp Web site.

Whether you choose to use these examples or develop your own, you need to think outside the box and make sure that when it comes time to balance the budget, your unit isn’t considered a financial liability. While there is no reason to believe that the need for specialized police professionals will ever completely disappear, it has become clear that our value is no longer one of “at any cost.”

About the author

Tom Burrell began his career in maritime enforcement in 1992 when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, following his service in the USMC Reserves during Desert Storm. He would see service in Key West, (Fla.) Norfolk, Va., and New York City, both afloat and ashore with duties which ranged from drug and alien interdiction to recreational boating safety. During this time he would serve in a variety of positions including boarding team member, boarding officer, boat crew, coxswain, and master helmsman. Achievements include Coxswain “C” School Honor Graduate, numerous Humanitarian Service awards and involvement in several high profile joint operations — including the security for JFK International Airport during the United Nations 50th Anniversary.

In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission as a Waterways Conservation Officer, a position which would include posting in both the rural north central region, and later in suburban Philadelphia. In 2002 he was promoted to patrol supervisor for the South Central Region and received the PA DUI Association “Top Gun” Award for his efforts in apprehending boaters who were under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance. Tom is currently a Captain assigned to Headquarters. He is also an instructor in the areas of firearms, hand gun retention, handcuffing, OC spray, First Aid & CPR, and Boating Under the Influence Detection/Apprehension.

In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University. In 2007 and 2008 he was granted the opportunity to address the Northeast Association of Criminal Justice Sciences, during their annual conference at Roger William’s University in Bristol (R.I.), concerning the unique search and seizure authority of conservation officers. When not working or going to school Tom enjoys hunting and fishing near his home in south central Pennsylvania and spending time with his wife Amy, daughters Paige and Johanna, and son Ben.

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