By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
Police agencies across the country are recruiting thousands of civilians for a growing number of duties previously performed by uniformed cops, in an unusual concession to local budget cuts.
The positions — some paid and others volunteer — are transforming every-day citizens into crime-scene investigators, evidence gatherers and photographers in what some analysts suggest is a striking new trend in American policing.
"It's all being driven by the economy and we should expect to see more of it," says University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, who analyzes law enforcement practices. "As budgets are squeezed, an increasing number of duties are going to be moved off officers' plates."
The chief opponents of the movement are police union leaders who believe cash-strapped agencies are lowering standards and undermining professionalism in the ranks. In some cases, the civilian positions circumvent pay and benefit obligations outlined in hard-fought labor contracts, says Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO).
"The economy ought not to be pushing this," Johnson says. "You want the real deal when you call 911."
Among the agencies expanding civilians' roles:
• San Francisco. Police officials plan to hire 16 civilians to investigate burglaries and other property crimes. The $1 million pilot program and others like it are being designed to allow dwindling numbers of uniform officers to focus on more serious violent crime.
San Francisco Assistant Chief Thomas Shawyer says the civilians will save up to $40,000 per person in training, equipment and benefit costs required to hire an officer.
• Mesa, Ariz. Eight civilian investigators hit the streets in June 2009 when the department could not afford to hire uniformed police. The unit's members— some drawn from the customer service ranks of Southwest Airlines, Costco and Barnes & Noble, where they are accustomed to dealing with the public — respond to property-related offenses, including burglary, fraud and vehicle theft.
All eight, says Sgt. Stephanie Derivan, have been trained to lift fingerprints, photograph crime scenes, interview witnesses and victims. They do not carry guns.
Derivan says the department is saving an estimated $15,000 per investigator in salary.
"It's an efficient way to do business," Derivan says.
• Durham, N.C.: Teams of civilian volunteers help police canvass neighborhoods immediately after murders and other violent crimes to aid responding units and put potential witnesses at ease.
Durham Chief Jose Lopez says other volunteers in city-issued cars patrol shopping centers during the busy holiday seasons and conduct property checks for residents who are away from home.
"They are additional eyes and ears for us," Lopez says. "It effectively puts more people on the street."
Not everyone is so enthusiastic.
"For most people, the only contact they have with local government is the police department," says NAPO's Johnson. "At that point of contact, we want a full-fledged police officer dealing with the public."