Throughout the police service there are departments whose staffing has been reduced as a result of budget cuts, retirements, and lack of people wanting to get into the field. That is not going to come as a shock to many. What has been shocking for me, however, has been the response to my question of what police department leaders are doing to ensure the situational awareness and safety of line personnel as a result of these cutbacks.
I have heard many, many stories from police leaders about staffing cuts. And when I do, I frequently inquire about how tactics have changed as a result of staffing reductions. It is both shocking and disappointing to get the deer in the headlights look from so many of these leaders. The command staff in many police departments have not held meetings with personnel to discuss how tactics will change as a result of having less personnel. How can we avoid the “deer in the headlights” look?
I can remember back to a time when I worked at my previous department when our minimums were 3 officers per shift. However, on training days and range days the minimum was dropped to 2 officers per shift. I recall one frustrated officer asking at a department meeting, “What’s the point of minimum staffing?” The captain’s response was, “For your safety.” What I found interesting about this was minimums were for our safety but on training days it was ok to dip below minimums so that the department did not have to pay overtime. Thankfully, the administration saw this flaw in the system and corrected it immediately.
When police officers are asked what they’re supposed to do differently as a result of reduced staffing I get the same deer in the headlights look. They have no idea. In fact, most of the time the response is, “It’s business as usual.” But it’s not. If less personnel are responding or if the response times of personnel are going to be delayed then, tactically, the same amount of work cannot get done in the same amount of time and this can compromise police officer safety.
Police officers need to hear from command staff, in advance of an emergency, that the game plan is going to change, and the new plan of attack should be shared. Otherwise, police officers will continue to do the same thing they’ve always done, only with less resources… and greater risk. A competent leader should never let this happen.
Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice
If staffing levels have been reduced or are anticipated to be reduced, command staff should meet with patrol personnel and run through scenarios of how strategies and tactics will change on scenes. A good way to do this is to run a scenario with the former staffing levels, detailing what patrol officers do and what the anticipated outcomes are.
Then run the same scenario with reduced staffing and discuss how the workload and stress changes and how the time to task completion changes.
- If your department has experienced a reduction in staffing, how have your tactics changed to reflect the reduction and to ensure police officer safety?
- Have your command staff sat down with patrol officers during roll call and lead meaningful discussions about how staffing impacts strategy and tactics and how they plan to change their approach to calls for service?
- What emergency response challenges from staffing reductions cause you the greatest concerns?
Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Police Science and Leadership at Bemidji State University and is a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.
Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander. His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making. He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He can be reached at [email protected].