To offset budget shortfalls, some state and local governments are increasingly incorporating public safety departments and functions into their revenue strategies. For example, North Carolina’s ‘Obey the Sign or Pay the Fine’ traffic enforcement program leaves no buffer zone for officers when deciding whether or not to issue traffic citations in an effort by the State to more proactively offset revenue shortfalls.
Michigan’s “Let Detroit Issue Automated ‘Photo Cop’ School Bus Citations” legislation pending in the State’s Senate would direct fines from ‘photo cop’ cameras placed on public school buses to Detroit public schools. The Department of Justice Division of Civil Rights Report on Ferguson, Mo. policing, highlights past efforts by City officials to offset revenue shortfalls utilizing the City’s public safety department and services.
When public safety departments serve as funding sources to offset state and local government revenue shortfalls, law enforcement administrators find themselves in a unique and challenging leadership position. Often times, police chiefs, sheriffs, and similar administrative professionals are pushed into restructuring their department missions, goals, and operations to fulfill revenue directives.
As a result, their officers may be placed into situations where acts of boldness, determination, and bravery are a consequence of budget politics versus the occurrence of a life or death situation in the regular daily performance of front-line duties.
The politics of budgeting have serious consequences requiring administrators to think mindfully about the impact of budget politics on officer safety and overall public safety effectiveness. When state and local governments mandate public safety departments serve as conduits for generating revenues to offset budget shortfalls, law enforcement administrators face the grim prospect of having to change their department missions and goals from ‘serving and protecting’ to ‘serving as a revenue center’ and thus risking disruptions to public safety efforts.
Budget Politics and Officer Safety
With local property values decreasing and voters placing caps on their local mileage rates including ceilings on state tax rates in areas such as sales taxes, state and local officials are frantically searching for new revenue sources, and as a result, incorporating public safety departments into their mix of revenue sources.
Administrators who seek to protect their job security find the politics of budgeting often creates an atmosphere of ‘go along, get along’ to avoid perceptions of insubordination or not being a ‘team player.’
When public safety departments convert their operations and serve as ‘revenue centers,’ law enforcement administrators must restructure their management thinking in order to fulfill and accomplish their revenue directives. For example, increasing officer shift times and officer foot patrols are often necessary to achieve the goals or quotas of their revenue directives.
Complicating the administrator’s leadership ability further is the perceived need to use compliance methods in the form of economic incentives to reward officers for meeting or exceeding revenue goals (e.g., ticket quotas) with disciplinary repercussions for those officers who fail to meet revenue goals.
Balancing the politics of budgeting and officer safety presents a serious challenge in law enforcement. Detangling budget politics from public safety requires thinking outside the box and the ability to critically assess the role of public safety organizations in solving state and local government budget issues.
Detangling Budget Politics from Public Safety
Understanding the term ‘politics’ in a concrete and applicable manner, collaborating with external (outside the public safety department) and internal (inside the public safety department) stakeholders on revenue solutions, critically assessing the risks associated with proposed revenue solutions, and monitoring the implementation of revenue solutions enhances the administrator’s ability during a budget crisis to detangle budget politics from public safety and mitigate increased chances for life or death situations on the front line.
The following recommendations may assist law enforcement administrators in better understanding the politics of budgeting and separate budget politics from public safety to mitigate the adverse effects of budget politics on officer and community safety.
First, understand what politics is. ‘Politics’ is a term often used in a more ambiguous or general sense to explain why and/or how policy decisions and/or outcomes occurred. “It was politics” is the explanation most often provided and without much elaboration of why a certain decision was made by officials. Fortunately, the field of political science provides a more concrete and functional explanation of ‘politics,’ which administrators may find helpful in understanding perceived roles of their public safety departments during times of state and local budget revenue shortfalls.
By framing ‘politics’ as a ‘who, gets what, when, and how’ question, law enforcement professionals can more concretely grasp the term and more easily assess who a particular revenue solution is intended to benefit, what the intended benefits are, when the benefits will be received, and how the benefits will be funded. When using public safety as an example, the ‘who’ may represent those individuals or groups (e.g. local business owners) who have a stake in a revenue solution.
The ‘what’ are the benefits (e.g., increased police presence in a business district) the individuals or groups (beneficiaries) will receive from the revenue solution. The ‘when,’ represents the timeframe (e.g., first quarter of the fiscal year) in which the benefits of the revenue solution will be allocated and finally the ‘how’ representing the method (e.g., increased citations by officers) the program benefits will be funded.
Identifying who, gets what, when, and how provides law enforcement administrators with a more concrete and manageable framework from which the administrator may assess the reasoning for specific budget decisions and implications for the department.
Second, obtain input from key stakeholders prior to decision implementation. Input from both external and internal stakeholders can help the administrator eliminate an environment of ‘groupthink’ where no one challenges the legal and ethical soundness of a budget solution (e.g., implementing a ticket quota system with increased work hours for officers and foot patrols) until after the solution fails.
Formulating and executing discussion sessions with administrators, officers, local government managers, citizens, and elected officials can mitigate inefficient and ineffective decision implementation while at the same time reducing department operational costs and eliminating increased opportunities for life-or-death situations on the front line.
Third, assess the risks of implementing a solution. Law enforcement administrators must think outside the box and separate politics from the problem. Administrators should ask, “What is the true source of the budget problem?”
Once the individuals or groups with a stake in the revenue solution are identified, the benefits of the solution determined, expected timeframes for delivering benefits established, and the sources for funding the solution determined, administrators must weigh the risks of implementing the revenue solution and determine if the solution will hinder officer and community safety efforts.
Fourth, establish checkpoints during implementation. Management scholars note that decisions in and of themselves are not important. Instead, how quickly an administrator can modify or terminate a decision once implemented is key. Law enforcement administrators must know when modifications to a revenue solution are needed or when the time is right to advise officials to ‘pull the plug.’
Fifth, establishing checkpoints throughout the implementation process will allow law enforcement administrators to more carefully and systematically manage the revenue directives mandated upon their departments and to advise officials when necessary to take corrective actions to modify the solution or terminate.
Law enforcement administrators must constantly be aware of the role their public safety departments are expected to play in solving state and local government revenue shortfalls. The ability to proactively separate budget politics from public safety efforts reduces the risk of placing the men and women of law enforcement one step closer to an end of watch and can enhance the safety of officers and the communities they serve.
Lisa R. Grace is a Sergeant at a Michigan Public Safety Department. She received her Masters of Public Administration from Central Michigan University. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Christopher Petras received his Doctor of Public Administration from Western Michigan University. He consults private and public/nonprofit entities on management, marketing, and public policy strategies.