When a car or home is burglarized in Arlington, Texas, the police employee who arrives to take the report and dust for fingerprints may not carry a gun or handcuffs or have the authority to arrest the person responsible, says the Dallas Morning News.
The city has hired six civilians to assume some minor but time-honored duties of police officers. It’s a trend being embraced by cities across the nation. Cities say that “civilianization” lets police officers do what they do best – patrol and investigate. Critics say that the trend could put the public and the civilian employees in danger.
Dale Horton, an Arlington police trainer, said the benefits are obvious. The hours a police officer spends on minor theft calls could be more wisely used elsewhere. Arlington’s civilian assistants are expected on the streets in about two weeks. Their duties will range from ticketing abandoned vehicles and citing illegally parked cars to responding to minor property crimes. Randle Meadows, president of the Arlington Police Association, said credits Arlington for deciding to keep the civilians from low-level calls like, burglar alarms that still have the potential to become dangerous. “They aren’t police, and we have to remember that,” he said.
Experts said that Arlington’s program is on the cutting edge of civilianization, said William King, associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Kentucky. Decades ago most full-time employees in the largest police departments were sworn officers, from the dispatchers to the property room clerks to the accountants. Recently, civilians have taken over responsibilities to file paperwork, crunch numbers, and operate 911 switchboards.
The changes should save money. In Arlington, a starting police officer makes more than $6,000 more annually than a police service assistant and costs more to train and equip. A 1999 report by the New York City comptroller estimated that more civilianization could save that city $36.2 million annually. The same concept, under the name “outsourcing,” can be found everywhere – from U.S. military mess halls in Iraq to city trash collection.
In 1960, 7 1/2 percent of full-time employees in the nation’s large police departments were civilians. Today, that number has reached 25 percent, about the ratio in Arlington, and is growing as departments learn that more and more of their employees don’t need to carry guns.