Police service is often the most cherished and visible municipal service—and inevitably one of the costliest. When it comes to balancing local government costs and quality of life, law enforcement increasingly is part of the public conversation. Too often, the immediate reflex is to equate cost savings in law enforcement with compromising public safety. That need not be the case.
A dichotomy drives the challenge
First, there’s emotion involved. We like the sense of security that comes with knowing an officer is patrolling our street. Whether responding to emergencies and criminal activity or getting to know residents on a first-name basis, police form bonds and fill roles that many residents consider vital for their community. Recently I learned some youths in my own neighborhood had accosted one of my neighbors. When I found out how intimately the police officers know the community and possible perpetrators, I could turn my attention away from being fearful for my family and instead focus on community advocacy and intervention.
Second, there are dollars and cents involved. Local governments across the country are more constrained than ever by limited resources and rising costs. In New York and New Jersey, for example, pension and other negotiated benefits are driving mandated annual increases that result in many governments bumping up against their state’s 2% cap on the growth in the tax levy. Plus in New York existing police union contracts are further insulated from certain cost pressures by law (i.e., Taylor Law, Triborough Amendment) and unions can exercise a binding arbitration process that has historically produced favorable outcomes for their members.