Public Safety & Justice

Does Government Work Require Government Employees?

Volunteers are taking on jobs once performed by public employees.
by | April 2011
 

'Stop! Taser, Taser, Taser!'

Triggers pull, nitrogen canisters pop and barbed darts clatter against body silhouettes taped to a wall. If the silhouettes had been people, five-second pulses of electrical current would have flowed into their bodies, toppling most of them to the ground.

“Don’t aim too close to the heart,” says Sgt. Jeremy Floyd. If someone’s coming at you, he says, shoot for the lower abdomen.

Floyd, the training instructor at a Wednesday evening Taser recertification class in Redlands, Calif., is sharing the fine points of stun gun use with a small group of men and women, all of them outfitted in blue trousers and white shirts with police badges. The badges identify them as members of the Redlands Police Department, but things are not what they seem. For starters, Taser target practice isn’t taking place at a police firing range. It’s happening on the porch of the Joslyn Senior Center. And in a state where many sworn law enforcement officers retire in their 50s, most of these officers look, well, older. White hair is the norm here rather than the exception. There are other oddities, too. Police department physical fitness requirements often exclude individuals with disabilities, yet one of the men is firing from a motorized wheelchair.

That said, the men and women gathered on the porch are members of the Redlands Police Department, as their badges denote. But they are not sworn or paid officers. They’re volunteers, part of the city’s Citizen Volunteer Patrol (CVP) unit. And they’re at the forefront of the one of the country’s more ambitious efforts to integrate volunteers into the workings of local government.

At a time when most city and local governments are preparing to do less with less, officials in Redlands are taking a different approach: They’re attempting to maintain current levels of service through other means. Ramping up the use of volunteers is one of them.

It’s easy to see why. Three years ago, the police department in Redlands, a city of 71,000 people east of Los Angeles, had 98 sworn officers, 208 civilians and about two dozen volunteers. The police budget was $23.8 million, nearly half of the city’s operating budget. Today, the department employs 75 sworn officers and 138 civilians and relies on 291 active volunteers, who last year contributed more than 31,000 hours of their time to the city.

The volunteers are not just answering the phones at police headquarters. They cordon off crime scenes, direct traffic, patrol the city’s 14 parks, write parking tickets, assist with animal control and provide crowd control at special events. They are also trained to check in parolees, assist with records processing, help staff DUI checkpoints, take reports on routine property crimes, serve as the liaison with the local San Bernardino County district attorney’s office, provide counseling to crime victims and monitor sex offenders remotely. In addition, they serve more traditional functions as volunteer reserve officers. Two volunteer reserve officers even conduct investigations alongside the city’s detectives. One has his own caseload. Some of the volunteers -- those who go through the special training session -- are allowed to carry Taser guns for their own protection.

It isn’t just the police department that’s assigned volunteers to important duties. Eighteen months ago, when Les Jolly took over the city’s Quality of Life Department, he started to develop a program that will soon field volunteer code inspectors. “Our staff was cut by over 10 percent this fiscal year,” Jolly says. “If you don’t think of creative ways to supplement what you do, then you are going to fail.” Redlands also employs a part-time volunteer coordinator, Tabetha Johnson, who routinely works with local civic clubs to mobilize hundreds of volunteers for events such as Redlands’ annual professional bicycle race.

“We have fewer resources,” says City Manager N. Enrique Martinez. “We had to cut staff. My challenge is to maintain the same service level if not better. The public is not interested in whether you have 15 fewer people than before or not.”

Nor should they be. At least that’s the argument Police Chief Jim Bueermann makes. “The fallback position for most local government bureaucrats like me,” he says, “is that it’s so much easier to say, ‘We have $3 million less so you are going to get fewer services.’ But there are multiple ways to get to the outcomes that taxpayers expect their police department is going to deliver.” Prominent among them are a greater reliance on technology and a greater use of volunteers. Call it do-it-yourself government. But can volunteers really put in the hours and perform sensitive, highly skilled jobs that take more than a friendly smile? Can they enable a government to do more with less? A close look at Redlands’ experience suggests that under some circumstances, the answer just might be yes -- although that might not translate into taxpayer support.

Jim Bueermann took command of the Redlands Police Department in 1998. A lifelong resident of the city and a 20-year veteran of the force, he knew his community well -- the rough neighborhoods as well as the affluent enclaves where, starting in 1870, wealthy visitors from the Midwest and the East found an ideal retreat in Redlands’ fragrant orange groves and snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains. Over the years, the visitors endowed their new community with such gifts as a symphony, a magnificent Moorish-style library, and perhaps most importantly, the University of Redlands. The city soon became known as “The Jewel of the Inland Empire.”

That phrase is not heard much anymore. Today, the Inland Empire is defined more by foreclosures than orange groves. The problems of neighboring communities, such as gang-plagued San Bernardino, with which Redlands shares a border, have crept in. And, despite its relative affluence, Redlands has suffered through three years of declining revenues, which have resulted in budget cuts to city departments, including the police.

When the police department’s workforce fell by a third, Bueermann turned to a city tradition: volunteerism. He accelerated volunteer-recruitment efforts and hired a volunteer coordinator to oversee his department’s initiatives. In the process, Bueermann discovered something surprising. Volunteers are not deterred by requirements that are demanding and responsibilities that are real. They are attracted to them.

Veteran police officers discovered something too. When the volunteer program was starting out, says Lt. Chris Catren, “we were filling the gaps with volunteers.” But as police came to realize that volunteers could do many of the routine tasks that had once constituted a significant part of their workdays -- directing traffic, taking reports, delivering evidence to the district attorney’s office, providing crime-scene control -- they came to depend on them. “They are,” Catren says, “as much a part of our service delivery model as the person in a black-and-white uniform with a badge and a gun.”

The department has used volunteer officers to take on specific, new tasks, such as patrolling parks, municipal orange groves and desert areas that stretch across the 40-square-mile city. One such area is the Santa Ana river basin, known locally as “the wash.”

The Santa Ana River, Southern California’s largest, begins in the San Bernardino Mountains and ends in the Pacific Ocean at Huntington Beach. Once upon a time, mountain storms would send deluges of water coursing through the river’s channel and into the sea. Today, subdivisions in Orange County occupy many of those floodplains, and the Seven Oaks Dam holds back the waters that would otherwise sweep those subdivisions away. But dams silt up. To maintain them, authorities must occasionally release water into the wash. That poses a problem because the wash also serves as home for the homeless.

In the past, police officers alerted encampments of the homeless to the coming water release so they could move to safer grounds. Now, the city relies on a group of volunteers known as the Citizen Volunteer Park Rangers to make sure the homeless are out of harm’s way.

On a recent Friday afternoon, two uniformed rangers, Lee Haag, a retired Air Force officer, and Sherli Leonard, the executive director of the Redlands Conservancy, descend on their horses into the wash. A few weeks earlier, they had distributed fliers warning of the water release at two recently spotted encampments -- one north of the Redlands Municipal Airport, the other in the lee of the Orange Street Bridge. Now they’re checking the encampment near the bridge. As they approach, it is deserted except for a stray dog. As the horses climb out of the wash, the rangers encounter a woman out for a walk. She stops to pat the horses. Knowing that rangers are out patrolling the wash, she says, has made her day.

The creation of the Volunteer Park Rangers says a lot about how the city interacts with its volunteers. The ranger program started almost accidentally. Three years ago, retired audiologist Brad Billings read an interview in the local paper in which Police Chief Bueermann expressed a desire to organize a volunteer patrol to tackle problems of graffiti and disorder in the city’s parks. Billings e-mailed the chief and two hours later got an e-mail back inviting him to a meeting. Their discussion was brief.

“Brad, it’s yours,” Bueermann told him. “Go for it.” Bueermann appointed a sergeant to supervise the program but left it to Billings to organize, raise funds and run the initiative, which now numbers more than two dozen volunteers. Like the Citizen Volunteer Patrol, rangers received training, uniforms, iPhones (to mark the location of graffiti and other problems) and access to city equipment. Sending volunteer rangers into the wash is something many cities wouldn’t do -- even if the volunteers were trained and well equipped. Bueermann says such risk-taking is essential. “Too often we accept a lack of money as a reason not to do things,” he says. “There are so many ways to get around that if we just accept a level of ambiguity, develop a tolerance for risk-taking and realize that sometimes failure is about learning.”

As for Haag and Leonard, they say they have never felt unsafe.

Redlands is unusual for the depth and breadth of its volunteer activities, but it isn’t alone. Confronted with the challenges of the Great Recession, cities across the country have begun to reconsider what can be done with volunteers. In December 2009, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg assembled 15 mayors to announce the launch of a new initiative, Cities of Service. Underwritten by both Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Rockefeller Foundation, the initiative provides cities with $200,000 grants to hire “chief service officers” to identify local priorities and develop plans to address them, using volunteers.

One of the mayors who appeared with Bloomberg was Nashville’s Karl Dean. In January 2010, Nashville received one of the first $200,000 Cities of Service grants. Dean tapped Laurel Creech to run the program. Her first day of work last May coincided with the 100-year flood that submerged parts of downtown Nashville as well as several residential neighborhoods. From the city emergency command center, Creech worked with a local volunteer group, Hands On Nashville, to text thousands of volunteers with a request for help sandbagging downtown against the rising Cumberland River. Within three hours, more than a thousand volunteers were on hand.

Since then, Creech has developed a service plan that focuses on two issues -- education and the environment. According to Creech, working with the heads of city agencies has been challenging. Although quite a few departments utilize volunteers in many ways, a lot of them don’t use volunteers as effectively as they could or, she says, they “don’t really know what suitable volunteer programs are and what volunteers can do and can’t do. The challenge is getting them to recognize that there are opportunities for improvement.”

Still, Nashville’s chief service officer believes that volunteers will take on more and more tasks once performed by government employees.

In Redlands, that moment has already arrived. When budget cuts nixed the Redlands Police Department’s plans to lease a helicopter from the county (at a cost of $500,000 a month plus operating costs) to provide air support, the department used drug forfeiture funds to purchase a 1967 Cessna 172, which it then kitted out with a $30,000 video camera that could be operated by a laptop in the back of the plane. To operate the plane, the department turned to volunteer pilots like Bill Cheeseman, age 70.

Cheeseman is a retired engineer who describes himself as “a gentleman acrobatic flier.” On a recent sunny afternoon, he takes the plane up for a patrol shift. A police officer, Sgt. Shawn Ryan, sits in the back, along with his electronic equipment: image-stabilized binoculars, a laptop to monitor the police dispatcher and operate the video camera, as well as a LoJack system for detecting stolen cars. As the plane lifts off the runway of the Redlands Municipal Airport, a police dispatcher reports a recurring alarm in a neighborhood of mansions between Caroline Park and the Redlands Country Club. Two patrol cars arrive at the scene just minutes before the Cessna, which circles overhead.

Two officers from the patrol car have entered the house. They have silenced their radio. If there’s a burglar inside, they don’t want its squawk to announce their presence. Two thousand feet overhead, Ryan focuses on the house. “If someone runs out,” he says, “we’ll see them.”

No one makes a run for it. The officers on the ground report that the wind was opening and closing an unlocked door. But even when the plane responds to a false alarm, it serves a useful purpose. One of Bueermann’s first and most controversial actions as chief was to disband a “beat” system that assigned police officers to various sectors of the city, with little regard for actual crime rates. Needless to say, affluent low-crime neighborhoods were unhappy with the change. By putting a plane in the air -- and highly visible police vehicles on the ground (albeit ones often driven by volunteers) -- he’s been able to assuage their concerns and free up his officers for the proactive police work of targeting gangs, guns and violence in the most dangerous parts of town.

It’s the kind of creative problem-solving that has allowed the city to cut personnel by 16 percent without damaging city services, says Redlands City Manager Martinez. Last spring, San Bernardino County and the city of Redlands commissioned a polling firm to gauge public satisfaction with city services. Even though citywide staffing and funding have been cut and cut again since 2007, 81 percent of respondents said services were at least satisfactory -- and 30 percent of that 81 percent actually rated services as better than satisfactory.

To Martinez, it was a testament to the creativity of city staff and the partnerships they have been able to build. “Less is not less,” he says. “The way services have been delivered for the past 20 years is very labor intensive.”

But the city’s approach may also have lulled the citizens of Redlands into thinking that city leaders have solved the problem of doing more with less and that the city doesn’t need more money to keep providing a top-notch level of service. Last November, when a measure to impose a half-cent sales tax surcharge to shore up city services went before the voters, it failed. In Redlands, the voters have spoken. Do-it-yourself government is here for good.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Public Safety & Justice