Police Personnel Crisis Needs Federal Leadership


May 23, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in Washingtonpost.com on May 23, 2006.

Communities around the United States are having a hard time recruiting and retaining police officers. They need help from the federal government to meet enormous new challenges that go far beyond traditional local crime-fighting duties.

As a consequence of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, police today have major new homeland security responsibilities. These include stepped-up surveillance of airports, government buildings, mass transit systems and other potential terrorist targets. Police also have new intelligence duties designed to foil terrorist attacks before they occur. And law enforcement agencies must also be ready to respond to possible attacks by chemical, biological and other unconventional weapons.

All this requires more officers, with more skills, at a higher cost. Given the nature of their work, police departments usually focus on short-term objectives, such as daily staffing needs and mandatory training requirements. But to adapt to new homeland security duties and the changing labor force, police departments will also need to develop long-term plans for recruiting enough new officers with the right skills. Unfortunately, no tools currently exist to help police departments plan for such force needs.

At a time of high federal budget deficits and competing government priorities, federal assistance to police departments is expected to drop. The proposed federal budget for the 2007 fiscal year includes a 41 percent cut from 2006 in law enforcement assistance programs run by the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The International Association of Chiefs of Police says these proposed cuts will hurt law enforcement nationwide.

Making the situation worse, police departments are anticipating a wave of retirements among aging baby boomers. And law enforcement agencies are facing growing competition for recruits because the number of federal and private security jobs has grown enormously since Sept. 11.

Several recent studies by the RAND Corporation on police staffing, state and local intelligence, and law enforcement's preparedness for terrorism have identified challenges faced by many police departments as they respond to the terrorism threat with limited human and financial resources.

For example, state and local law enforcement agencies are typically paying for new intelligence activities by cutting their spending on other programs. Police programs that have been cut around the country include activities to combat gangs, narcotics, fraud, forgery, vice, burglary and auto theft.

Most police departments don't have the financial or analytical resources to study long-term issues on their own. Instead of expecting them to do this, a better approach would be to have either the U.S. Justice Department or a national organization conduct forecasting and planning studies for police personnel needs around the country.

Examples of such studies would include:

  • Examining strategies to recruit new officers. For example, research could analyze the skills needed by future officers, forecast the number of officers needed for the challenges of tomorrow, and survey young people to gauge their interest in police work. This could indicate whether police departments need to make changes to attract the best candidates.
  • Strategic planning to help resolve debates within many departments about whether to modify entrance requirements -- such as accepting candidates who are less physically fit, have histories of prior illegal drug use, or have financial debts. The issue of toughening educational requirements for new officers should also be examined.
  • Looking at how changes in a community's population, business development, housing construction, environment and other factors may affect the skills needed by police officers in the future.

Creating a central national clearinghouse to gather information from these and other studies involving police personnel information would benefit all police departments, particularly small ones.

A useful first step would be to develop a strategic planning model for local police personnel planning that could be used to help anticipate current and future workforce needs and trends. Such a force-planning model would incorporate key elements common to most police departments across the country, but would be customized for different departments to reflect local conditions.

The RAND Center on Quality Policing has been working with local police to develop components of such a model, but federal investment is needed to develop, implement, test, and compare the utility of alternative planning models.

Jeremy Wilson is associate director of the Center on Quality Policing at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research corporation. He is the author of "Community Policing in America" and co-author of "State and Local Intelligence in the War on Terrorism," "Police-Community Relations in Cincinnati," and "Establishing Law and Order After Conflict."

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