The Wall Street Journal recently reported that job applications are plummeting at most U.S. police departments, citing negative perceptions of policing and a healthy economy as contributing to the decline. We have found this to be true in our assessments of police departments across the country, and police chiefs have also been expressing this concern. In fact, a year ago, Hillard Heintze founder and CEO Arnette Heintze noted in his blog on the 6 Law Enforcement Trends That Will Help Shape Federal, State and Local Priorities in 2018, that many law enforcement agencies are finding it increasingly challenging to recruit, hire, train and retain qualified officers.

In this increasingly difficult environment, 2019 is shaping up to be the year when police departments must look for solutions to their staffing challenges. One tool at their disposal is police staffing analysis, a technical diagnostic exercise that can yield enormously valuable – and sometimes unexpected – insights on a wide range of issues that directly and indirectly impact officer recruitment, hiring and retention, as well as morale and even community trust.

Budget Pressures Increase the Need for Police Staffing Analysis

Although the economy has improved over the past several years, state and local governments continue to struggle to keep budgets under control. Police departments constitute some of the largest expenditures for city government, and personnel expenses are by far the largest police department outlay.

Naturally, when local governments trim their annual budgets, they often look to the police department to reduce the budget in a significant manner. As departments experience declines in applicants, they are also pressured by city officials to ensure they are correctly sized to meet the needs of the community. Apart from the goals and perceptions of city administrators, rank-and-file police officers often think that the department does not have enough officers, creating what can seem like an impassable divide between city officials and police leaders.

Many departments seek to bridge the divide with staffing analyses, which can provide them with:

  • A determination on whether the department is appropriately staffed – and where staffing realignment can improve department outcomes
  • An ability to sustain a safe, secure environment while ensuring a more effective and efficient workforce
  • Insights into the number of police officers needed to help the agency meet the demands placed on it in the most cost-effective manner.

Budget Isn’t Always Behind the Need to Examine Police Staffing

Over the past few years, Hillard Heintze has engaged in staffing analyses with many cities and budget is not always the primary driver. A community that is growing or transitioning might also look to a staffing analysis to contribute to strategic decisions about how to align its police force with the population and its particular needs. City officials or police departments could consider conducting a staffing analysis if:

  • The community is expanding its jurisdiction by adding subdivisions and therefore increasing its population. In turn, department leaders likely need recommendations for how to best allocate their limited personnel resources, both for patrol services and investigations.
  • The community has experienced increases or decreases in crime and calls for service.
  • The demographics and community expectations of the police have changed, and an agency needs help in learning how to diversify its workforce in a prompt yet meaningful way.
  • The police department is seeking to embrace a more progressive, community-oriented policing methodology to better meet the needs of existing citizens.

Some departments recognize that it is a good practice to conduct a staffing analysis on a routine basis, perhaps every three to five years, but more often if the community is evolving quickly or specific incidents reflect the need for one. Even in a particularly stable timeframe, a community’s needs can change.

The Best Studies Take an Inside-Out Approach

Staffing analyses typically focus on patrol and examine data from the police department’s Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) and Records Management System (RMS). This allows the reviewer to analyze calls for service, the number and type of crimes to which the police responded, arrests, traffic accidents, and officer time off patrol for vacation, training, court, administrative time and sick leave. While this is important information to determine a baseline number of officers necessary to respond to calls for service, policing is much more than responding to 911 calls.

Our clients who ask for staffing studies often ask for an assessment of operations and assistance in developing their strategic goals. This is a good practice in that conducting a police staffing study alone, without understanding the community context and the department’s overall policing goals, does not provide all the answers. This baseline staffing number should be supplemented by the agency’s strategic decisions, which often center on visibility, quality of life, community engagement and crime deterrence.

For example, policy decisions made by the chief and command staff, such as how quickly officers should respond to different types of calls for service and how often community members should expect to see an officer drive down their street, are key elements to consider in a staffing analysis. The numbers gleaned from the staffing analysis must balance with governmental, organizational and community goals for policing services. Important questions to answer include:

  • How should the department address those calls that are not related to an actual crime? What effect do those calls they have on staffing?
  • What do the chief and the community want officers to do when they are not responding to calls for service?
  • How does the department measure performance to ensure that officers and the entire department are implementing the department’s strategy and meeting the community’s needs?
  • Does the community want a “full-service” agency or one that only responds to calls for service?

Ultimately, the department’s strategy, policy and current deployment decisions affect its overall staffing needs. Combined with an independent operational assessment, a police staffing study provides guidance to the chief and city officials to determine the best and most efficient use of police department resources to ensure public safety.