Homeland Security and the Police

| October 18, 2004 | Reply

The Washington Post has an article today about police officers and how the unrelenting terror alerts are taking a toll not only on their health but also on the budgets and on police services.

It’s an interesting article that asks good questions, but gives the wrong answers.

It’s true that police officer are fatigued. I can say this from direct personal experience. They, and their support personnel (who we often forget but, hey folks, police dispatchers work the same shifts as officers in nearly every department in the country) have been off and on 12-hour shifts, dealt with heightened alerts, have had to deal with new regulations that limit the amount of vacation time they can take and when, at many points in the last three years. We often forget that while we have the luxury of going about our normal business in the normal way we do so only because we have law enforcement personnel out there doing the hard work for us.

But that does take a toll. Most police departments are undermanned and underfunded. They still have to handle the same things they did before – the same crimes and calls for service – but now they have a new big job thrust upon them as well. Homeland Security is every agency’s newest and biggest job and it takes resources we can not imagine.

Consider this. Every time we go to Orange Alert, every police department in the country changes what it does radically. Officers go on extended shifts. They provide 24-hour patrols of sensitive locations which means that they are not as available to answer the rest of the calls for service that come in. Their shifts are changed to accomodate the alert, which means that plans they had made with family or friends have to be rescheduled or cancelled. The agency’s overtime budget gets blown often in days and money has to be diverted from other sources like equipment, training, and supplies. New schedules also mean that leave already scheduled and approved can often be cancelled – mre changed or cancelled plans and no visible place to get a break.

Even under Yellow Alert, where we’ve remained since 9/11, police officers have had to shoulder new responsibilities. Now they don’t at all mind these new responsibilities, even though the article seems to imply that they do. But those responsibilities take time away from many other things – things that we all want them to do. And we can be demanding bastards at times. Trust me on this. Go ahead and try to tell a politically-connected elderly person that you can’t immediately respond to the sound of gunshots they hear somewhere in the vicinity of their house in the middle of hunting season because your officers are patrolling a nuclear power plant. They don’t want to hear that their complaint is trivial and most likely not even a violation of the law and that we’re up to our eyeballs in something we’ve been told is vitale importance and has been mandated fomr the highest levels of State government. All they want to hear is that an officer will soon be there to soothe them and let them know that everything’s okay.

This brings me to what the article didn’t say. The biggest problem that officers face is not a new set of duties, or even manpower or funding issues. The biggest problem is that our police agencies have not reoriented themselves to this new task. They have simply added it on to a laundry list of other things officer have to do which can be elevated at any time, for any reason.

See, police departments have seen that Homeland Security is the ticket to lots and lots of Federal money. The problem is that the Federal government has’nt quite said what the local agencies think they’ve said. Take this quote, for instance:

“The city is facing a $3 billion deficit next year, and we are spending money we don’t have because Congress hasn’t come through for New York,” said Ed Skyler, a spokesman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R).

Instead of taking responsibility for this himself, the Mayor is passing it along to the Federal government. If a police department is undermanned and underfunded, it’s not the Federal government’s responsibility. Mayor Bloomberg has no problem spending money on a host of other things, including trying to get the Olympics. But obviously finding new revenues sources for his police department isn’t all that important to him, or at least it’s of much lesser importance than many other things.

See, it’s all a matter of priorities. And your state governors and local representatives haven’t made Homeland Security a priority because we haven’t forced them to do so.

It’s very simple. Every state and local jurisdiction makes enough money to amply fund and staff its police department. None of them do because there are other things on which they would rather spend money. If we were serious about Homeland Security, we’d make very sure that our plice had the money they needed to handle these alerts without driving our officers into the ground. But we don’t because we, generally, aren’t at all serious about the matter. Yet we insist that our police officers be serious for us.

And there’s something else we can do. We can recognize that as long as we make Homeland Security our officers’ top priority, we’re going to have to sacrifice other things. We’re going to have to help them by taking some of the pressure off of them. We’re going to have to take up some of that slack ourselves – by being smart about what we call the police to handle, about taking responsibility for looking after our own homes and neighborhoods, by not turning a minor neighbor dispute into a huge row that will require an officer come out and mediate it. We’re going to have to spend our officers’ time wisely because there’s only so much we can spend.

But police departments are hardly off the hook here. Much of the problem that officers have come from departments that have yet to adjust to the new reality. They still consider Homeland Securty an “add-on”. They haven’t made it part of normal police operations, as permanent as vice and homicide. The fact is that we may need to be on a war footing for a while and since we can’t predict how long that may be, we may as well assume that it’s goign to last for the forseeable future. If if ends sooner (and I believe it will) then fine. We can change things back with a minimum of heartache. But departments have not made the change and it needs to happen now. Homeland Security patrols have to be part of routine operations. There need to be concrete contigency plans to handle alerts, with SOPs and a definite flow to the process. There have to be ways to “give back” cancelled leave or to releve fatigued officers. None of these will be easy but they have to be done. There’s no excuse for not having these plans in place. They are not matters of convenience. They are necessities.

Homeland Security matters are here to stay. We might as well accept that right here and now, and treat our police departments accordingly. The status quo is not merely inconvenient. It’s dangerous.

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