Law Enforcement Staff Reductions and the Effects on the Public in New Jersey

Written by David J. Moody, MA David J. Moody, MA

David Moody is a 5 year veteran of the Berkeley Township Police Department, and is currently working towards his Ph.D. in Public Safety Leadership/Criminal Justice at Capella University. Mr. Moody sits on the executive board of PBA Local #237, and has previously served as a Corrections officer for both the State of New Jersey, and for Ocean County.

Friday, 04 March 2011 11:30

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PBA FMBA rally in Trenton at the state housePBA FMBA rally in Trenton at the state houseThe terms furlough, layoff, reduction in staffing and services have been seen in increasing numbers over the past few years, during the current economic recession, within the ranks of the public work forces as well as the private workplace. The prolonged economic recession, including the faltering real estate market and increasing rates of unemployment, has affected the way in which government units do business. With less revenue coming in through taxes and fees – coupled with increases in the cost of equipment, facilities and personnel -- cutbacks have taken place in many locales and have become drastic in scope. Additionally, the implementation of a two percent hard budget cap on annual increases in local government budgets has tied the hands of governmental subunits from increasing the collection of funds as a way to budget for operational costs and improvements. Only a few, very limited exceptions such as health and pension benefit contributions, capital expenditures and debt service, and any costs associated with a state of emergency are allowed beyond the two percent limit.

There are not any programs or services that will be immune from the chopping block resulting from the budget cap restraints along with the declining inflow of revenue due to the economic downturn. Education, social and mental health services, public works and other governmental functions already have been significantly trimmed to fit within available funding. This can be seen in last year’s reduction of state aid to local school districts and the proposal to shutter a state psychiatric institution in the new budget year. Law enforcement services have not been immune from budget shortfalls; the downsizing of specialized services, the elimination of positions through attrition, furloughs, and shortfalls, in addition to lowered staffing levels available for response and community protection. Departments across the state have reduced services such as DARE and School Resources Officers due to financial and staffing issues, or have sought alternative funding such as billing or entering into cost sharing arrangements with local school boards to provide for these positions. The reality and future of the myriad of services that are provided will be vastly different that what has been historically given and expected by the citizenry.

Law enforcement officers are more than the enforcers of statutes and ordinances and the investigator of criminal activity. Law enforcement officers carry out many unofficial roles above that of public guardian; they are social workers, marriage counselors and priests, teachers and coaches, first aiders and mechanics. The duties that an officer comes across during a typical shift include, but go well past, the traditionally understood definition, and the community has come to expect nothing less. With the shrinking or elimination of programs and positions within other governmental divisions, officers see and deal with more situations both in interactions during routine duty and answering calls to crises such as acute mental health evaluations and . They have become an oddity within their profession as a first responder and as a last resort when nothing else is available to help an individual, family or neighborhood.

Statistically speaking, the ratio of fulltime law enforcement officers within the state of New Jersey, 3.66 per thousand in population, is significantly higher than the U.S. Department of Justice’s recommended average ratio of 2.5 per thousand. As simple raw data, this appears unusually unwarranted and high, but other factors need to be considered in order to view a more realistic picture. These includes the population density within New Jersey, and the state’s definition of what constitutes a law enforcement officer. New Jersey ranks 11th overall in population, with a jurisdiction that carries a ranking of 47th in the nation in terms of geographic size. This gives New Jersey the notoriety of being the most densely populated state in the country. These numbers also illustrate a number of unique factors that complicate what would necessarily be a simple ratio.

Secondly, New Jersey is unique amongst many states in that many public safety careers such as corrections officers, weights and measures enforcement, parole officers and park rangers carry the same full law enforcement designation and authority as municipal police officers, state troopers and sheriff’s officers despite a limited jurisdiction or roles and responsibilities. Other states, such as Florida, differentiate the limited scope of some career paths and do not classify them as law enforcement. In addition, the number of specialized agencies with investigational and statutory authority, such as various transportation police agencies, conservation officers, and investigators for the state attorney general and county prosecutor’s offices, along with a myriad of federal law enforcement agencies who have a presence within the states boundaries, artificially raises the ratio of law enforcement officers to the population. This is an inaccurate representation because a significant percentage of these agents are not actively involved in the daily protection and safety of citizens in either the traditional, or the enhanced and expected sense, as discussed earlier. This observation is not meant to diminish the importance of specialized roles, such as infrastructure protection, investigatory support or the care and custody of the incarcerated, but to merely point out inaccuracies in generalized data brought forward as gospel by the ratios defined by the FBI and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

According to a May 2010 survey conducted by the New Jersey State PBA, law enforcement agencies had reported a combined net loss of around 600 officers in the previous 12 months. As media headlines have shown, since that date, the loss of public safety professionals within the state has increased exponentially. The numbers are provided as agencies layoff personnel -- in addition to the regular process of attrition through resignations and retirements. Drastic examples of this phenomenon that have occurred since the PBA survey was published demonstrate the growing concern of the loss of public safety. These include the layoff of 167 police officers in the City of Newark in December, which amounts to almost 17 percent of rank-and-file personnel. In January, Camden laid off nearly half of its police force. Jersey City had served layoff notices to nearly 10 percent of its police officers, and also ordered a number of forced demotions. These jobs have only been saved through the reopening of collective bargaining agreements. The City of Patterson and Camden County have both made announcements indicating that they may diminish the number of sworn law enforcement personnel within their jurisdiction due to budget concerns. Although drastic by the economies of scale, these cities and counties are not alone. Suburban and rural departments in all 21 of New Jersey’s counties have reported similar measures that have been discussed or implemented.

It has been widely argued that the increase of law enforcement officers past a certain threshold will not decrease the amount of crime in direct proportion to the growth of staffing levels. However there is no study showing a stasis of crime when staffing falls below that line. The rates of crime will begin to grow out of proportion with the decreased staffing. A historical example of this can be seen in 1978, which was the last time in which the City of Newark laid off a large number of police officers. At that time, it was nearly 200 officers out of a force that was slightly larger than the contemporary pre-layoff staffing level that were let go. After the 1978 layoffs, mayhem ensued with the murder rate in the city rising 49 percent by 1980, and robberies had more than doubling. In more recent times, New Jersey’s Uniform Crime Report has shown a 22 percent decline in reported criminal activity between 2000 and 2009. Although 2010’s final UCR report has not yet been published, media accounts have shown that in the midst of the slashing of public safety services, crime rates have become higher during the same period in which law enforcement staffing has eroded.

As mentioned earlier, law enforcement officers function in the unique role of first responder. In the absence of other community services such as mental health and social service programs, they also serve as an end point for addressing personal, family and social problems. While the increased crime statistics may be an anomaly, their presentation of motive, opportunity, and lack of a capable guardian as understood through the popular sociological control theory on crime and deviance tends to lead toward a continuing trend that will only increase in the future. Without an adequate law enforcement presence as a deterrent to the criminal, Pandora’s box is opened a path of opportunity, and a lessened likelihood of being caught.

A systematic approach to addressing a disjointed and broken system needs to be undertaken to address the basic criminal justice needs of the community, in addition to the expanded social role now carried out by law enforcement officers, which has become an expected service by citizens. The use of staff reductions will be a perpetual budget stopgap measure with the implementation of the hard budget cap and compounded by times of poor economic growth. Rather than slashing staffing levels to close shortfalls, alternative management strategies should be developed and implemented to continue a stable level of public safety and community service levels in our communities.

New Jersey is a strong home rule state, and most of its 566 municipalities have their own independent services structure that they provide to their residents. Consolidation and regionalization of many of the common municipal services provided by towns and counties can lower administrative levels, and be more cost effective on an economy of scale and elimination of redundancy and waste. This consolidation and restructuring can reduce costs while allowing for an increase of the level of services provided within a set budget. The layoffs of law enforcement officers, along with other government employees, has affected both mandated and expected service levels by the taxpayer/consumer, who have voiced the need for financial restraint and accountability.

Operational and administrative changes, such as governmental regionalization, cost sharing, and the privatization of some services can be developed to stabilize the number of services provided to the taxpayer rather than minimizing the availability of services such as trash pickup, police and fire protection, and other government-provided programs. Because of the new hard budget cap, reasonable service reductions will need to made, but there also must be a modified approach to how services are provided. It is imperative to avoid a cyclical point of no return in which service losses affect the safety and wellbeing of residents.

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Law Enforcement Staff Reductions and the Effects on the Public in New Jersey