The Norwalk Hour featured an interesting and enlightening article this past weekend that focused attention on the challenges faced by the Norwalk Police Department as it attempts to staff critical services – such as patrol – while dealing as creatively as possible with an unfortunate, and somewhat persistent, staffing shortage. The article attributes this current “staffing crunch” to a variety of factors, including: recent and impending officer departures; an unusually high number of officers either out, or on light duty, due to injury; recent hiring “misfires”; recent resignations due to misconduct; and the small pool of qualified candidates that area police departments are competing for – a challenge, incidentally, that departments across the country are also struggling with.
As sobering as the article was in describing NPD’s staffing challenges, one statement in particular stood out in my mind as being especially significant: “Extra duty assignments such as providing traffic control for construction projects, road races, and security at festivals also ‘puts a huge strain on available officers,’ he (Chief Kulhawik) added.”
For me, at least, this statement practically begs the following question: Could now be the right time to consider establishing a team of “Traffic Agents” in Norwalk (as has been done successfully in the town of Westport) to handle extra-duty assignments such as monitoring construction sites and road races – and possibly other tasks as well that don’t require the full training and skill set required of a law enforcement officer?
My now-fuzzy recollection is that such an idea was discussed by the Common Council some five or six years ago as part of what I remember being a fairly vigorous discussion of NPD extra-duty assignments – a discussion that seems to re-emerge every few years in our town as reliably as cicadas or a recurrent sinus infection. And what transpired then, as has invariably transpired again and again when such discussions take place in Norwalk, is that inertia prevailed and the status quo was maintained – all bolstered by a failure to carefully examine old hackneyed arguments, paired with the equally regrettable lack of courage to take on entrenched special interests.
But that was then, and this is now – and circumstances have changed. So putting aside whatever the historical reasons may have been for not seriously considering alternatives to police officers for extra-duty assignments, I would assert that today – in the here and now – a compelling case can be made for establishing a team of “Traffic Agents” in Norwalk. Reasons in support of doing so include: access to a larger pool of candidates for the position of “Traffic Agent”; freeing up police officers to focus on tasks/missions that require greater/higher levels of skill; reducing pressure on, and incentive for, police officers to work unreasonable amounts of overtime and extra duty; and, ultimately, enabling our highly-qualified and highly-trained police force to provide a higher level of service to our citizens.
On the cost side of the equation, the benefits are more difficult to articulate – a fact that those who have opposed changes to the status quo in the past have been quick to take advantage of. But for illustrative purposes, let’s look at one possible implementation scenario and set of assumptions, and assess its impact on costs to the City, costs to the recipients of extra-duty services, and costs to the City’s residents.
The assumptions for this scenario are that:
1) A traffic agent’s pay would be less than that of a sworn police officer
2) The City would continue to bill the beneficiaries of extra duty work (e.g. utilities, construction companies, tree removal services, etc) as is done today, but at a lower rate commensurate with the City’s lower cost,
3) The team of traffic agents would report to the Police Chief/Head of Public Safety, and
4) The total budget for public safety would be maintained at current levels
In the above scenario, the City’s cost for providing public safety services would be unchanged, while likely providing a higher level of service to its Citizens. Recipients of extra-duty services would see a reduction in what they have to pay for such services – thus making them happy. And finally, Norwalk’s citizens would benefit from the reduced cost of extra-duty services since those costs are ultimately passed on to them by the Utilities, tree companies and construction companies that have to pay for them.
The above is a stalking horse only. It’s intended to stimulate a constructive and vigorous dialog that will hopefully result in a proposal for a better way to do things going forward- while helping address today’s very real challenges in finding and hiring qualified police officers.
Let the (hopefully) constructive dialog begin…