The COPS Office’s Integrating Civilian Staff Into Police Agencies provides an overview of the historical and contemporary roles of civilian employees in U.S. police agencies. It traces the origins of civilian policing staff in the 1800s and their steady rise through the 1930s. Today, civilians make up about one-third of police agency staff nationwide. The text outlines the wide range of duties performed by civilian employees – from clerical work to forensic analysis to first response. It highlights the unique benefits of civilian staff, including cost savings, specialized skills, and community relationships. Civilians also increase diversity and provide management flexibility. However, the text notes potential downsides, like resentment from sworn officers. It provides six best practices for agencies integrating civilian staff, including assessing costs/benefits, building internal support, training employees, and setting clear policies. For criminal justice students, this text underscores the evolving roles of civilian police employees. It provides an important perspective on their advantages and challenges. The practices offered give a blueprint for agencies adopting civilianization.
Integrating Civilian Staff Into Police Agencies
Historians generally credit Boston in 1838 and New York City in 1844 with creating the first full-time, vocational, permanent police agencies in the United States. Other major cities soon followed suit and created their own police agencies. As Klockars writes, sworn personnel are distinguished by their “general right to use coercive force by the state within the state’s domestic territory”
Because not all police work required such coercive power, police agencies could also employ individuals who did not have arrest powers: i.e., civilian police employees. Agencies could also enlist the skills of volunteers.
However, police administrators resisted civilianization because it could reduce the ability of police administrators to reward political cronies with sworn officer positions. Therefore, civilian police employees were exceedingly rare prior to the 1930s, though the lack of systematic data back then on police agency employment makes historical trends difficult to discern.
Historical research, the bulk of which dates from the 1960s and 1970s, demonstrates that civilian police employees have a long tradition in the United States with the number and proportion of civilian employees steadily increasing in the mid-1930s and through the 1970s and 1980s. Police agencies used civilian employees to perform various tasks such as dispatch, record keeping, and clerical duties.
The economic recession of 2008 resulted in difficult budget decisions for many local law enforcement agencies. Those in the most dire straits explored layoffs, furloughs, and even disbanding their organization. Those in less dire straits investigated alternative methods of management and service delivery. For example, agencies re-explored the civilianization of policing, which remains one of the most frequent methods agencies use to continue providing police service to the community while still tending to the pressing management and administration needs of an agency.
As of 2008, 33 percent of full-time local police employees were civilians, and 77 percent of state and local law enforcement agency employees were sworn personnel. Yet individual police agencies differ greatly in the proportion of civilian police employees. For example, 65 percent (140 employees) of the 215 full-time employees in the Mansfield (Texas) Police Department were civilians while only 0.3 percent (four employees) of 1,210 full-time employees in the Montgomery County (Maryland) Police Department were civilians. Altogether in 2008, local police agencies employed 368,669 full-time civilian employees and 56,278 part-time civilian employees.
Contemporary Roles for Civilian Employees
From routine tasks to high-level command positions, police agencies can use civilian employees in management and administration positions and in service delivery to the community. Often, civilians reside outside the formal authority structures of police agencies, except in the case of civilian commanders. Having civilian leaders and employees can have unique benefits and costs.
Currently, U.S. police agencies use civilians for each of the following task areas:
- Providers of clerical, accounting, reception, dispatch, maintenance, custodial, detention, and technical duties
- Uniformed first responders to nonviolent calls for service
- Crime scene processors and forensic crime lab employees
- Crime victim service providers in the field
- Analysts, researchers, and planners
- Community liaisons and public information officers
- Command staff and strategic leaders
Historically, police civilians have provided a wide range of tasks that vary by agency. Civilians often served as call takers and dispatchers as well as clerical workers providing typing, transcription, filing, and record keeping. In some agencies, civilians handled accounting, budgeting, and finance. Civilians also performed custodial chores and maintained facilities, vehicles, or equipment, and some agencies hired civilians for detention duties. Likewise, today some agencies use civilians to provide technical skills, such as maintaining and repairing computer networks, hardware, and software; operating computers; programming; and repairing and calibrating technological equipment such as Breathalyzers. Considering this historical context, many agencies may view such tasks as relatively traditional for civilians.
Some police agencies use civilian employees to serve as first responders to noncritical or nonviolent calls for police services, such as calls for animal control, “cold” burglary scenes, automobile accidents, and calls reporting theft and vandalism. Using civilians as first responders for certain tasks dates back to at least the early-1970s. Responsibility for animal control rests with the local police in High Point, North Carolina, where the police department employs two civilians for animal control services. Since the late-1990s, the Naperville (Illinois) Police Department has used civilians to direct traffic and issue parking tickets. In Reno, Nevada, civilians direct traffic and handle 75 percent of cold crime reports. The Concord (California) Police Department uses civilian employees located in offices (not in the field) to follow up on leads and take crime reports.
Increasingly, the practice of forensic science requires advanced training and academic degrees. As a result, police agencies that operate their own forensic crime labs use civilian employees to perform many forensic duties. In the past, many agencies typically had sworn first responders or specialty officers process crime scenes. However, over time, agencies have turned to civilian employees to process their crime scenes and gather physical evidence. For example, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas, switched responsibility for the processing of crime scenes from sworn police officers to civilians. In Austin, the civilian Crime Scene Unit employees wear uniforms and carry radios.
Civilian employees can provide services to victims of crime. Victim advocates and victim service providers (VSPs) can help crime victims understand the process of investigation and prosecution and can connect them with compensation funds and other services such as counseling. In some cases, VSPs provide education on issues such as avoiding repeat victimization. In Virginia, 21 percent of VSPs are employed by police agencies . Police agencies from Rockville, Maryland, and North Las Vegas, Nevada, use VSPs.
Civilian employees can work as analysts, researchers, or planners. In larger agencies, they can work in specialized research and planning units (RPUs) or crime analysis units (CAUs). These civilians often bring specialized skills or training in areas such as statistical analysis, mapping, computer programming, budgeting, and crime analysis. Some of these RPUs and CAUs employ a mix of sworn and civilian employees. For example, the deputy director of planning in the Houston (Texas) Police Department is a civilian, but some members of his staff are sworn officers (including a police sergeant).
Police agencies face increasing pressure to communicate and develop trust with various communities, and some of these communities comprise recent immigrants not fluent in English. The traditional model for policing ethnic groups calls for a police agency to recruit and train as police officers members of that ethnic group. Thus, a police agency gains officers fluent in the language, which enables it to learn the cultural norms of that group and possibly to increase its legitimacy with that group.
However, many agencies have realized that bilingual members of ethnic groups, especially groups that have only recently appeared in numbers in the United States, may have more attractive career options than working in law enforcement. This is evidenced by some departments offering additional “bilingual pay” for officers who speak multiple languages. Also, some immigrant groups originate from countries where citizens do not trust the police. Therefore, recruiting qualified and bilingual members of ethnic groups can be difficult, if not impossible.
Alternatively, some police agencies have successfully employed members of ethnic groups as civilian employees. It is easier to find and hire qualified civilian employees than to find, hire, and train individuals for sworn positions. For example, during the 1980s, Lowell, Massachusetts, experienced large numbers of immigrants settling from Southeast Asia. In addition to trying to recruit police officers from these newly established communities, the Lowell Police Department hired two members of these ethnic communities, who were compensated as civilian police employees but served in the community as liaisons between the department and the community. These liaisons monitored their communities and communicated local concerns to the superintendent of the department. The liaisons also communicated messages and information from the department to the community. From all accounts, the civilian liaisons in Lowell were successful at improving relations and communications between the community and police department.
Public information officers (PIOs) often serve as a point of contact between a police agency and the media and public. PIOs can also provide media advice and coordination efforts for police agencies. Estimates of the percentage of PIOs who are civilians range from about one in 10 to four in 10.
Not all civilian employees serve in ancillary or support roles. Some civilians are upper-division commanders or hold strategic leadership positions within police agencies. Civilians who serve in command positions most often lead the administrative services section of a police agency. Using civilians in command positions is novel in an environment where most authority is traditionally derived from a rank position within a hierarchy of sworn officers.
Yet examples exist of high-level civilian commanders overseeing and supervising sworn officers in large U.S. police agencies. In 2003, the Los Angeles Police Department appointed a civilian to manager of its Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau. Also, in the early-2000s, the head of administrative services in the Lowell (Massachusetts) Police Department was a civilian. The Chicago Police Department appointed a civilian as deputy superintendent of its Administrative Services Bureau, and this civilian became responsible for managing a budget of more than $1 billion and for the Personnel, Information Services, Records Management, and Research and Development Divisions. In 2013, the Glendale (California) Police Department also appointed a civilian as a commander over administrative services.
Civilian employees can offer police agencies a number of benefits. First, they are less expensive than sworn officers in terms of salary, retirement, and benefits. A study of 13 police agencies in the 1970s found that salaries averaged “23 percent less for civilians than for officers and overhead about 10 percent less.” A second 1970s study found civilian salaries and fringe benefits to be about one-fourth the cost for sworn officers. However, studies or data that address the costs of civilian employees since 1981 in the United States could not be found, but one Canadian study projected that the benefits and salaries for civilian employees were 67 percent of that for sworn officers in 2006.
Second, civilians enable sworn officers to concentrate on a narrower range of functions. For example, civilians can help agencies multiply their force by allowing more officers to be on the street or in field services. In addition, civilian employees can free sworn officers from dispatch duties and administrative tasks and make officers available to return to patrol or other assignments that directly affect communities. Finally, civilians may augment agency work in newly created positions.
Third, civilians bring specialized skills or formal training that regular sworn officers might not possess, such as formal engineering, legal, or scientific training. These skills could be valuable in contemporary police agencies for investigations and accident reconstruction, for crafting and revamping policies, or for computer programming and forensics. Civilians can also provide practical skills such as mechanical skills, computer hardware or software programming abilities, and even janitorial and maintenance talents. Some agencies may employ civilians who are multilingual or have specific cultural competencies valuable to the agency’s community outreach efforts.
Fourth, civilians can help improve community relations, a benefit especially important for community policing efforts. Police agencies can hire civilians who are more representative of the population without the limitations imposed by the physical or background requirements for sworn officers. Indeed, civilian employees have long helped police agencies increase their gender diversity. Civilian employees strengthen ties with the community because they serve as ambassadors during their nonwork time. Civilians also bring the community’s perspectives to the police agency, and “the ‘outsiders’ view on law enforcement may provide the perspective necessary to bridge the gap with the community.” Civilians in a police agency may deescalate police-community antagonisms and provide a “humanizing effect” on police officers.
Last, civilian employees often provide managers with greater flexibility for personnel assignments. In many states, civilian employees are exempt from civil service requirements and are rarely unionized. Therefore, civilians are easier to hire, transfer, and even fire. The process for authorizing the hiring and training of a new recruit class of sworn officers is usually measured in months while that of hiring civilians is usually measured in weeks.
All these reasons contribute to the usefulness of civilian employees. Comparatively, empirical research generally finds that more affluent agencies (usually measured by departmental budget) employ a greater proportion of civilians and that agencies facing budget cuts sometimes lay off civilians instead of sworn officers—providing further evidence of the greater flexibility civilian employees offer to agencies.
Employing civilians is not without possible detriment. Sworn officers or their unions may resist increased civilianization because sometimes they see civilians as “depriving a member of the force of a desirable detail or assignment.” Agencies sometimes hold station-house assignments for officers who are relieved of street duty or injured. If these positions are civilianized, they are no longer available for officer reassignment.
Officers might resist civilians if their assignments run contrary to the stereotypes of appropriate civilian assignments. In particular, sworn officers may resent civilians in positions that officers fear compromise sensitive information, that interfere in sworn officers’ exercise of discretion, and that disrupt operations. In some cases, this resentment might turn into rivalries between sworn officers and civilians and into antagonism toward civilian employees. Resistance by sworn officers might take various forms, as in the case of the Rockford, Illinois, police union’s resistance to a civilian overseeing administrative services.
Six Promising Practices in Hiring and Deploying Civilian Employees
It may be useful for agencies that are considering the use or expansion of civilians to seek out peer agencies that have employed civilians in similar capacities to learn about the positive and negative implications of their use. In the meantime, a law enforcement agency considering hiring more civilian employees or assigning civilians to new agency tasks should carefully follow these six promising practices, which can help agency administrators plan for success and avoid potential pitfalls:
- ASSESS THE NOVELTY OF THE ASSIGNMENT FOR THE AGENCY. In many cases, an agency might add a few civilians to handle tasks that are quite similar to already civilianized tasks. For example, civilianizing the records section when the human resources section is already civilianized would probably be a simple transition. But civilianizing a leadership position, crime scene personnel, or creating civilian first responders requires prudence and building support among key constituents (see no. 3).
- DETERMINE THE TRUE COSTS AND BENEFITS FOR THE AGENCY. Civilians are often less expensive in terms of their salary and benefits. Yet there may be less visible costs associated with hiring civilians. These costs can include buying special equipment, making provisions for access to secure facilities, and negatively effecting department culture and morale. For example, if sworn officers view civilians as a threat and this results in substantial conflict within an agency, the costs may be unacceptable for some agencies. Yet civilians may offer benefits that could improve culture and morale (see no. 1).
- BUILD SUPPORT AMONG KEY CONSTITUENTS. Police leadership should explain the planned change to line officers, management, and law enforcement unions. Agencies should be transparent in terms of why they plan to civilianize positions, but civilianizing can often be presented as beneficial to sworn officers because it can relieve them of mundane or less-desirable tasks, such as record keeping or responding to vehicular accidents. Or perhaps the civilians can provide services that the agency cannot currently deliver, such as advanced crime analysis, computer support, or liaisons with ethnic communities.
- DEVELOP A PLAN TO TRAIN CIVILIAN EMPLOYEES. Training should be delivered initially and as in-service training (Chess 1960). In some cases, civilian employees should be educated about the unique aspects of policing and ways to navigate organization culture and chain of command. Employees should receive training on safety considerations, the importance of keeping documents and records secure, ways to handle confidential information, and other issues important to the agency. Simply, civilians won’t receive the benefit of academy and field training; therefore, an agency must provide an appropriate level of training and orientation as well as a career ladder.
- ESTABLISH PERFORMANCE ASSESSMENT CRITERIA FOR CIVILIAN EMPLOYEES. Agencies should evaluate their employees regularly and provide them with feedback. Crafting useful performance criteria is especially important when the position is new for the agency.
- DETERMINE THE PROCEDURES FOR DEMOTING, FIRING, AND HANDLING GRIEVANCES ABOUT OR FROM CIVILIAN EMPLOYEES. As with any employee classification, agencies should take care to ensure that proper personnel policies and procedures are in place to account effectively for adverse consequences associated with civilian employees.
As for any organizational change, police decision makers considering the new or expanded use of civilians must assess for themselves whether the benefits outweigh the costs in their unique circumstances. The lessons and promising practices noted throughout this publication provide a first-step in framing such a process.
Source: COPS Office. Integrating Civilian Staff Into Police Agencies.
Modification History File Created: 08/10/2019 Last Modified: 09/22/2023
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