Otis White on Houston's civilian traffic enforcersA quick pass-along tonight from Otis White's Urban Notebook at Governing magazine on Mayor White's civilian traffic enforcer plan (still no permalinks, so full text). I think it sounds like a pretty good plan. When you think about the cost and training of full police officers, it makes sense to support them with lower cost time-replacements whenever possible, just like doctors maximize their time with an array of support staff like nurses and assistants. Can you imagine the waste of time and money if doctors did everything in their office themselves? They wouldn't be able to see half as many patients. It makes sense to have auxilaries do work like traffic enforcement to free up police officers to fight "real" crime - a clear necessity after today's front-page Chronicle story.
Policing Without Police
Putting More Blues on the Street
Start with the basics: Researchers have established that simply putting more cops on city streets brings down crime, so it’s hardly surprising that most cities would like to add police officers. But, of course, cops are expensive and budgets are tight. The answer for a growing number of places: some kind of civilian force.
The latest big city to consider such a force is Houston, where Mayor Bill White is looking at hiring 35 or more “civilian traffic enforcers” to direct traffic, clear wrecks and maybe handle some accident investigations. These civilians would not be armed or have arrest powers, and they’d be limited to traffic enforcement, Houston’s police chief said recently. Cost: about $2.5 million a year, when the force is up and running.
That’s expensive, working out to about $70,000 per employee, but it’s a bargain compared to sworn officers, who are paid more, equipped with a small arsenal of equipment and trained extensively. There doesn’t seem to be a commonly accepted rule of thumb for what it costs to train and equip a full-fledged officer, but one small department recently estimated its costs at $65,000, not counting salary or benefits. Hence, the interest in using civilians for things that don’t absolutely require a badge and a gun.
Houston isn’t the only place thinking along these lines. In cash-strapped San Diego, the city council is considering hiring civilians to handle administrative duties at police headquarters — things like human resources, technology management and even code compliance, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported recently.
So who doesn’t like this idea? Typically, it’s police unions, which want more highly paid members. In Houston, union leaders were cautious about Mayor White’s traffic-enforcers idea but not automatically opposed. “This mayor thinks outside the box, and that’s good in situations with budget shortages,” the head of the city’s police union told the Houston Chronicle. “But this seems pretty new and abrupt and makes you scratch your head a bit.”
Actually, such civilian forces are fairly common. In Seattle, civilian parking enforcement officers are sometimes used for traffic duties, and New York has long had a volunteer auxiliary force that patrols neighborhood streets in city-issued uniforms with radios, batons and handcuffs but no guns.