In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many leaders are coping with the impact of officers in their organization being on quarantine, hospitalized, or simply calling in sick. This is occurring against a backdrop in which many agencies are struggling to achieve full staffing. The forecast from many police futurists, however, is that this situation is only going to get worse, independent of the COVID-19 situation. Most agencies have a high proportion of personnel who are retirement-eligible or approaching eligibility. Exacerbating this are the ongoing recruitment struggles that have been well documented. Add to it now the suspension of many police academies and the cessation of recruitment and selection efforts, and the staffing forecast for 2021 and 2022 is challenging. If COVID-19 results in cycles of regional or national workforce disruption, as some medical experts are projecting for the next 18-24 months, police agencies might only be seeing the beginning of their challenges to provide core services and to care for their personnel.
There ARE some steps that leaders can take today to prepare for possible significant staffing and service disruptions. Some are non-traditional and potentially dramatic shifts in policy, however the emerging challenges might require exploration of such practices. These may not be permanent solutions; however, they might allow agencies to mitigate staffing shortages during a time when workforces might be depleted due to medical emergencies.
- Incentivize postponement of retirement. This may be a challenge, with the current risk environment of disease coupled with the ongoing anti-police narrative with which many communities have been dealing. This may, in the long run, be less expensive and a faster solution for some agencies. Doing this might require that agencies offer bonuses, increased longevity pay, and other incentives to encourage eligible officers to postpone their retirements.
- “Hire back” recently retired officers. In some communities, this may require local or state legislative efforts to overcome pension prohibitions for retired officers to return to paid employment in the public sector. Some policies will need enactment to address fitness for duty from a physical, emotional, and psychological perspective. Separated officers would likely need to be given a defined level of training (possibly including abbreviated FTO), as well as certification of firearms and technology qualifications. Leaders may have to implement qualifying criteria to ensure that poor performance or high liability retired officers are screened out of the rehire process. Agencies might opt to use such officers in support service capacities to free active duty officers for patrol and other field operations.
- Expand or implement an auxiliary officer program. Auxiliary and reserve officers have been successful parts of many agencies for decades. Other agencies may have stopped the practice or never experimented with its use. It is time to revisit the issue within agencies to explore what kinds of activities auxiliary officers might handle in place of regular sworn officers. Agencies that are accredited may have to ‘negotiate’ a temporary suspension of training requirements for auxiliary officers due to the manpower crisis faced by most agencies.
- Increase the scope of duties for uniformed, civilian positions. Uniformed, non-sworn field personnel go by a number of names in the policing industry: Community Service Officers (CSO’s), Police Service Officers (PSO’s), Police Service Aides (PSA’s), etc. This is the time for leaders to reevaluate the full potential and scope of using non-sworn uniformed employees to respond to calls for service that may not require arrest powers and a weapon. Some agencies already use CSO’s for traffic crash reports, cold calls for burglaries, stolen and found property, etc. Agencies might find such personnel are able to provide a range of support services, including non-traditional demands community medical crisis may create (i.e., perimeter security at medical facilities or shopping centers).
- Reconsider response priorities. As this document is being written, agencies in communities hit-hard by COVID-19 are seeing workforce depletions of upwards from 20% and rising. Before such crisis hits, leaders should consider how this might need to modify response priorities and staffing objectives. Are traffic units still needed in a community? Should detectives continue to actively investigate property offenses with low solvability? What are the core call and service demands that must receive a response in a given community and how can a depleted workforce be reconfigured to meet needs, while keeping personnel safe, healthy, and adequately rested? This might mean leaders need to stipulate certain kinds of calls for service to which their agencies will not respond, at least temporarily.
- Re-examine mutual aid agreements. Many agencies have mutual aid agreements; however, such documents might be outdated in terms of their scope, specification, and authorizing signatures. It would be wise for leaders to review their existing agreements to ensure they are adequate to address current needs and contexts. In metropolitan areas, adjoining agencies may need to have contingency plans for sharing manpower; one day an officer may have to report to City A, the next day City B, etc. The successful use of such agreements might necessitate that participating agencies determine in-advance a set of regional policies to at least govern high-risk critical activities, such as pursuits and use of force, while also establishing clear rules for communication, incident command, etc.
- Coordinate and communicate with local partners. Leaders should ensure a high degree of communication and coordination with local public safety and medical partners. If relationships exist, ensure that all involved are in communication and have direct linkages with one another. Where relationships need to grow, now is the time to do so. Leaders might know their peers in area law enforcement and fire services, but do they have communication with the medical community and managers of essential businesses (e.g., grocery stores and gas stations)? We have seen COVID-19 wreak havoc on staffing in fire and EMS in some areas; do the local police know the contingencies established by those partners? Who will the police be working with if the fire department has to invoke their mutual aid agreement?
- Prepare for the extreme; hope it does not happen. In extreme emergencies, pre-planning might be beneficial between police leaders and the state’s National Guard. If a Guard mobilization became necessary, police leaders have a legal and ethical duty to ensure that a Guard mobilization for civil support would result in a coordination collaboration between police and the Guard, with a strong emphasis on Constitutional protections for citizens, restrained use of force, etc. The time for such contingency planning is before a mobilization begins.
These suggestions are but a few of the ideas that each Chief/Sheriff needs to discuss with their leadership teams. Other ideas, such as contracting out site security functions to private contractors, are already in place in some cities. The purpose of the article is to stimulate planning and preparation, so that WHEN the manpower shortages begin to emerge as forecast, agencies are ready.
Chief Richard (“Rick”) W. Myers is the former Chief of Police for the City of Newport News, Virginia. He has also led agencies in Colorado Springs, CO; Plymouth, Michigan; Lisle, Illinois; and Appleton, Wisconsin. Chief Myers is a former Executive Director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association; former Chairman and Commissioner on the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA); Life Member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP); Past Board Member of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF); and a Past President of the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association (WCPA) and the Society of Police Futurists International (PFI).
Joseph A. Schafer is a Professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice and the Associate Dean of Research in the College for Public Health and Social Justice at Saint Louis University.