Crisis or opportunity: the duality of recession in policing

by Sandy Sweet

Toronto Police, ©andrewarchy from Toronto, CanadaAt first glance, most people would readily agree that the recent slew of cuts to policing budgets constitutes a crisis in the sector.  Generally speaking, they would be right.  But on the other side of the coin, there’s opportunity.  There’s nothing like a recession to bring out the best in innovative thinking to streamline and recharge the way policing is delivered.

Historically speaking, the police sector has always been somewhat shielded from episodic slumps of the economy. As an essential service for public safety, police budgets were typically considered invulnerable to the ups and downs of the fiscal environment. But during the most recent economic meltdown, as public funding continued to shrink so too did that security. 

Training is the key to officer safety and the ability to do the job effectively and efficiently.
Though we’re now in recovery mode from the 2008-2009 recession, the impact of that event is still clearly evident. Like many sectors, police are feeling the pinch. Law enforcement agencies around the globe have experienced unprecedented cuts to their budgets, often resulting in reductions in frontline and civilian personnel, freezes on recruitment, elimination of special units, and general cutbacks in all areas of operation. The Canadian police sector is no exception. While many Canadian services have managed to make do with the status quo, some like the RCMP and the Ontario Provincial Police have cut back on new hires while others like the Toronto Police Service are wrestling with very tough decisions about cuts to their frontline.   

The reality of present day policing demands more bodies that are more skilled and more educated to tackle an increasingly complex criminal element. As such, human resources make up the greatest proportion – as much as 90 per cent – of a typical police budget. For obvious reasons, many services will first sacrifice other areas before they take officers off the street. Training can often be one of the first casualties. In a 2010 survey of American police agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum, nearly 70 per cent cut back or eliminated training programs as part of local government budget reductions. These may provide short term savings but certainly not without a long term cost. Training is the key to officer safety and the ability to do the job effectively and efficiently. It is also a primary component of any police service’s risk reduction strategy.  Despite retaining the core elements of basic training, suspending supplemental training can leave significant gaps in an officer’s development, impacting both the officer as well as an organisation’s ability to develop a succession of future leaders. It can also leave an organisation open to legal liabilities in the wake of unfortunate, but inevitable, incidents. In these terms, training is not something to skimp on. Given current economic conditions, it means that police services must become that much more efficient in delivering training.

Online delivery enables organisations to provide more training to more officers for less cost.
With all that said, many would find it difficult to see the upside of an economic downturn. But if there is a positive side to the story, it’s that recessions are often the breeding ground for innovation. That old adage that necessity is the mother of invention rings very true when we’re pushed to the wall. In a recent article (June 3, 2011) in the Toronto Star, Mitch Potter outlined some of the groundbreaking initiatives coming out of U.S. police agencies, including the installation of civilian investigators and new technologies such as license-plate reading cameras and gunshot detection sensors. These examples have helped American police departments spread sworn officers a little thinner without seriously compromising the service they provide in the community. Here at CPKN, we know that e-learning can also play a role in stretching hard-to-find dollars.

Mural publicizing the Bait Car program in a Vancouver parking garage.The Canadian policing community has embarked on a collaborative approach to e-learning. This model is used to share knowledge and best practices among police services across the country. Priority training issues are identified, developed, and accessed by a national police audience, saving not only significant cost in terms of content delivery, but also duplication of effort at the organizational level. The advantages of this approach are well documented. The use of technology enhanced learning for stand-alone or blended training reduces training time – by up to 75 per cent in fact. At a time when every hour of an officer’s shift is more valuable than ever, this ensures more time is allocated to operations, not the classroom. In terms of cost, online delivery enables organisations to provide more training to more officers for less cost. E-Learning can be developed and rolled out to a particular group or across an entire service with much higher efficiencies that traditional models. Depending on a service’s policy, online training also provides flexible access from work or home. Most importantly, we know that e-learning works: in a recent survey of CPKN learners, 88 per cent agreed that e-learning is an effective way to provide training.

There’s no denying that we’re in the midst of a very challenging time. In spite of that, many acknowledge the opportunity for the police sector to adapt and innovate to this new reality. For our part, CPKN is working hard with the Canadian police community to create solutions that improve efficiencies and maintain the training needs of the sector. And chances are, on the other side of this recession, we’ll all be the better for it.


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