Pulse of Policing: The seismic challenges facing today's PDs (and how to overcome them)

Law enforcement leaders are now faced with seemingly impossible tasks, and yet they are accomplishing those things despite difficult conditions


Pulse of Policing 2015: The State of Law Enforcement is an ongoing research venture aimed at examining the current state of policing in America from the individual, organizational, and industrial perspectives. Learn more about Pulse of Policing

American law enforcement agencies are perhaps under greater strains today than ever before in history. Police leaders have numerous issues — many of them in stark tension against each other — with which they must contend. For example, the public at once demands that crime be stopped, but that police officers are more tightly restricted in their crime-fighting activities.

Citizens say they want their police force to more closely reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the public, and yet the increased scrutiny of the profession has made it difficult for a career in law enforcement to look appealing.

Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell, left, looks at protestors, Tuesday, July 28, 2015. (AP Image)
Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell, left, looks at protestors, Tuesday, July 28, 2015. (AP Image)

The people say they want to feel safe from terrorism, active shooters, and other mass-casualty events, but they do not want police to have armored vehicles and other tactical tools designed to keep officers safe in addressing those threats. What is a police leader to do?

Staffing, Funding, and the ‘Ferguson Effect’
Following what many call the “Great Recession”— during which police departments saw significant drops in budgets and manpower — very few municipalities were able (or willing) to bring staffing and funding back to pre-recession levels. In essence, police were asked to do more with less, and that trend continues today.

Further complicating the issue is widespread public pressure for financially struggling police agencies to buy expensive body cameras, the even more expensive storage solutions for digital evidence, and other solutions such as predictive-analysis software that have good ROI but big up-front acquisition and implementation costs. Chiefs and administrators are left to wonder, “Where will the money come from?” All too often it comes from reduced training and smaller numbers among the ranks of line officers.

And of course, in recent years the demands of the public on its police has increased considerably due to high-profile use-of-force incidents. Although many of these incidents were proven to be completely justifiable, they have caused massive citizen outcry about police tactics. The level of scrutiny has gotten so high that many officers have indicated that they will no longer engage in the practice of proactive policing — they will only answer calls for service, take the report, and move on. They fear that any self-initiated contact can turn into the next viral video, possibly ending their career or their life. Many officers call this the “Ferguson Effect” and it has far-reaching consequences.

Any reduction in proactive policing is sure to embolden criminals who can sense the police throwing in the towel and throwing up their hands. Although there is not yet any hard statistical data to support assertions that this has caused an increase in crime in some areas, many have said that rising crime and reducing proactive policing have surely got to be interwoven trends.

The “Ferguson Effect” has also caused officers who do get into physical confrontations to not use enough force. Look no further than the cop who allowed himself to be beaten unconscious with his own service pistol because he didn’t want to become the next news headline.

Further, in a time when the public is demanding a diverse workforce of cops, the current climate makes recruiting officers of any background much more difficult to do. Why would a capable and intelligent young person want to enter into a profession in which simply doing your job to the best of your ability  may result in a lawsuit, jail, or the grave? Would not a career in software engineering look a lot more appealing than being a police officer to many kids today? Despite this seismic challenge, several agencies have taken proactive and long-term approaches to recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce.

Meanwhile, police officers on the job today have in many places become personally downtrodden due to the negativity directed toward them, so police leaders need to also address morale issues and stress-related health effects. Law enforcement agencies need to redouble their efforts to ensure the training, health, and fitness of their officers, but do so with little or no funding to accomplish those goals.

Rising to the Challenge
To put it mildly, law enforcement leaders are now faced with seemingly impossible tasks, and yet they are accomplishing those things despite difficult conditions. Our second coverage category in our Pulse of Policing series sought to explore some of the above challenges and more, including the myriad of ways a police chief’s job has changed since Ferguson and the fact that following Ferguson, the need for police to “get out in front of a story” and engage the news media has become an operational imperative.

What’s Next
In coming weeks, look for us to turn our attention to some of the ways private enterprises serving the police market are working to help law enforcement in today’s challenging times.

As always, we appreciate your feedback and your ideas, so let us know what you think of the coverage and what else you’d like to know about by sending us an email or sounding off in the comments section below.

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