Special Report

Special Report: The Cost of Safety

Special Report - The Cost of Safety

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Sheriffs and police chiefs are charged with making each dollar in the department's budget stretch as far as possible in order to provide the most public safety possible.

Agency leaders from Boone, Cole, Moniteau and Callaway counties said this challenge is no more apparent than when making the decision of how many officers or deputies to hire.

According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice, there are four main strategies that law enforcement agencies use to determine the amount of agents to employ and patrol a city or county.

Some agencies employ the "per-capita" approach by hiring a fixed number of officers that directly related to the municipality's population. In other words, for every (x) number of citizens, you need (y) number of agents. 

The advantages of this strategy include its simplicity and ease of interpretation. However, it fails to factor in a number of variables, including community conditions, needs and financial allowance.

“There are different demands, different expectations in every city or county," said Chief Roger Schroeder of the Jefferson City Police Department. "I as an administrator have been taught that you have to keep a pulse on your community and react appropriately to what they expect.”

Some agencies employ the "minimum-staffing" approach which requires police decision-makers to estimate a sufficient number of patrol officers to deploy at any one time.

This strategy is largely dependent on collective bargaining and regional policy but the main problem is that objective standards for setting the minimum staffing level do not exist.

The third approach to determining law enforcement staffing is based solely on the amount of money the department receives from the city or county.

While law enforcement officials said this is not the most effective way to provide public safety, it is often the one smaller agencies must follow out of necessity. 

“Ninety percent of my decision-making for staffing is about funding," said Moniteau County Sheriff Tony Wheatley. "What I have available to work with and what I do with it. Sometimes, in the evenings, I only have one deputy on for the whole county.”

The Department of Justice report said "This approach does not typically reflect any identifiable criteria but rather an incremental budgeting or other political decision-making process. As such, it can become an artificial benchmark for need, creating the perception that the agency is understaffed and overworked if the actual number of officers does not meet the authorized number."

The approach that mid-Missouri sheriffs deem "the most-effective" is based on identifying the needs of the county, taking into account factors like distribution of calls, nature of calls, performance objectives and staffing estimates.

"Without a community support level that aids us, we can't do a very good job at all," Schroeder said. "Regardless of how good we think we are, without community support, we're not that good at all."

"Community support is a necessity," said Chism. "It's not a want, it's a need. The community members are the best eyes and ears we have out there."

More information about community law enforcement action can be found at the National Crime Prevention Council website.

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