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Civilians and Automation Are Making Police Departments More Efficient

Forces around the country are employing civilian investigators and online reporting to address workforce shortages among armed personnel.

A female police officer standing in front of a white pickup labeled "police" and "police service technician."
A civilian technician with the Bakersfield, Calif., Police Department. Using civilians to handle non-injury accidents has freed up police time to handle more serious investigations.
(Bakersfield PD/Facebook)
In  Brief:
  • In brief: Police departments across the country are moving to online reporting of minor theft and other non-emergency incidents.
  • Some are using civilians to investigate traffic accidents.
  • All this frees up officer time, while often making it easier for residents to get what they need.

  • If you’re involved in a fender bender in Wilmington, N.C., chances are about 50-50 that a uniformed police officer will show up at the scene. It’s not because minor crashes aren’t taken seriously or that workforce shortages are especially severe there. Instead, the city employs a squad of civilian technicians to respond to many of its non-injury accidents.

    “We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response from our community,” says Sgt. Will Richards, who oversees the force’s traffic unit. “They think it’s fantastic that we have civilians out here doing this.”

    Wilmington has employed civilian crash investigators since 2007. The program has proven so successful that over the past couple of years it’s tripled the number of employees involved, from two to six. They’re on call from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through the week, with sworn officers taking care of business on nights and weekends. All told, the civilians now handle about 45 percent of the city’s non-injury accidents. “They can handle it on their own 99 percent of the time,” Richards says.

    It helps that they know what they’re doing. Most are retired law enforcement personnel themselves. Wilmington’s approach served as a model for a statewide law, enacted this year, which will allow any North Carolina municipality to use civilians to handle non-injury accidents. The state is just now putting the final touches on its training requirements for civilian investigators under the new law.

    But it’s not rocket science. “It’s something where in reality the police are acting as agents of the insurance company,” says Alex Heaton, a director of the Policing Project at New York University’s law school. “There’s really not a value-add specifically by having an armed response come and fill out those forms.”

    This is part of a movement across the country to remove some administrative tasks from the portfolio of uniformed police. Efforts in major cities to have social workers or mental health professionals respond to emergency calls have drawn most of the attention — and controversy. Having civilians fill out paperwork, by contrast, has been less heated, while the savings in terms of personnel costs are clear.

    Denver also uses civilian technicians to write up accidents. New Orleans uses them not only for traffic but situations like lost pets and, in some cases, theft. Cities from New York to Oakland, Calif., are now allowing residents to fill in their own reports online when they’re victims of theft. Humans will review the forms and ask questions when necessary, but the results are generally good enough to satisfy insurance companies. Meanwhile, officers are freed up to spend more time investigating serious crimes such as rape or homicide.

    The potential manpower savings are huge. Chicago alone fields 1,000,000 calls to 911 each year, while Los Angeles last year received more than 300,000 requests just for graffiti removal.

    “What this ultimately does is free up resources for police to do the things that are most appropriate for them to do, rather than requiring them to do administrative paperwork that doesn’t need armed, highly trained police personnel,” says Scarlet Neath, policy director for the Center for Policing Equity, which advocates reform of law enforcement practices.

    Self-Checkout at the Station

    Dallas has gone from allowing online reporting to mandating it. Beginning in July, residents have had to use online forms to report low-level crimes including traffic accidents, shoplifting and harassment. “In the first month, we saw a 63 percent increase in usage of our online reporting system,” says Robert Uribe, the 911 communications administrator. “That means for the first month, we saved 4,000 additional hours.”

    Not everyone has a computer or Internet access, so the force has installed electronic kiosks at police stations. There’s already demand for more. From the citizen’s point of view, there’s a lot of convenience involved in the do-it-yourself approach. In most cases, they won’t have to visit the station, or sit and wait on hold. And they don’t have to stand by the side of the road waiting for an officer to show up in the first place. That’s a big plus, especially if you’ve been involved in an accident late at night.

    Dallas moved to mandated online reporting after a consultant found incredible waste in terms of how officers spend their time. People were previously having to wait “on average about 10 hours” for responses to non-priority calls, Uribe says.

    “There’s a lot of inefficiency,” he says. “There’s frustration for the citizens and it gives the bad guys more time to sell stolen goods or do the other things they do.”

    Lifting an Enormous Burden

    When people fill out their own forms, they can add a lot more information than cops might, says Heaton, from NYU’s Policing Project. Wanting to be made whole by insurance companies, their incentives are to include as much information as possible. That may thus end up giving police departments more data as they’re trying to piece together patterns. “This is a smart policy for everyone concerned,” Heaton says.

    There are a number of factors driving this change. Police and sheriff’s offices around the country are understaffed, so any time savings is valuable. Some of this experimentation was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, when finding ways to reduce live contact between officers and the general public was a priority. And of course there are those concerned with excessive force who are happy to find any way of reducing encounters between officers and the general population.

    “This is part of a trend where communities are starting to look closely at what kind of issues, where residents are calling 311 or 911 for services, end up being handled by police and may not need to be,” says Neath, of the Center for Policing Equity.

    She notes that these types of experiments have been happening quietly for a while, but may now be at the point where they start snowballing. If departments are able to save thousands of human hours through automation or transferring functions to civilian personnel, that’s something other jurisdictions are going to notice. Especially if it makes for an improved user experience for the community.

    It’s not always 100 percent clear exactly where to draw the line in terms of removing officers from the equation. Police do need to keep on top of what’s happening, but there are clearly instances where having armed personnel respond simply isn’t necessary. If your car window gets smashed in, not much is gained from having a cop come out to the scene to say, “Yep, it got smashed all right.”

    The places that have tried cutting officers out of the response to certain types of incidents are, for the most part, finding lots of upside.

    “I think people can get excited by the sheer number of calls we’re going to be able to move off the police docket and 911,” Heaton says. “This is an enormous burden on the system that we can make automatic.”
    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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