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Public Safety as a Multidisciplinary Endeavor

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brenda Bond
September 10, 2018

Ensuring public safety is inherently a multidisciplinary endeavor. For decades (even longer) we have depended on on local police agencies alone to ensure public safety, but this thinking is changing to reflect a more realistic and evidence-based perspective on how to best ensure public safety. Most would say, with confidence, that because police are a 24/7 operation and are the first responders to all kinds of social and public ills, they are the de facto institution for tackling these issues. This might be a necessary evil, but undeniably, there are aspects of public safety administration and delivery that would be best completed by “experts” from other fields. While this way of thinking will surely disrupt public safety institutions in ways that may not be welcomed, the path to more economical, efficient and effective public safety is grounded in the knowledge, training and expertise of diverse professions from diverse sectors.

Let’s start with the community safety challenges facing communities today. Some of the most prevalent public safety issues are property crimes. Having a home burgled, property vandalized or a motor vehicle stolen are common occurrences, and their prevention and response should be under the purview of police. Violent crime, such as homicide (a rarity for most) and assaults, should also be tackled and investigated by trained law enforcement experts. Evidence-based strategies exist to guide trained law enforcement in these public safety efforts. See Crime Solutions.gov for a collection of practices. But the police need to have the data and knowledge to understand the nature and characteristics of these crimes. We might be optimistic and think that police training academies are training and educating officers in research and analysis, but not as much as we would hope, or is needed. Therefore, police agencies should employ individuals educated and trained in research and evaluation, and in crime analysis. The research and analytical work needed to reach effective public safety requires specialized training in research and evaluation methodologies, as well as data collection, quality assurance, geographic information systems and other analytical techniques. These tasks are best completed by experts in these areas. Embedding them within police agencies would be the ideal scenario.

There are many other challenges facing police and communities today — substance  abuse and addiction, sex offender management, offender reintegration and family and youth violence. These challenges are complex, involving individual and community dynamics beyond the training, expertise and skills of police. Yet, the police are expected to solve these challenges every day. This is not only unrealistic, but can be hazardous to individuals, communities and the police.

What police agencies need is capacity, in more sophisticated and comprehensive ways, to prevent and respond to these challenges. Imagine police agencies that systematically deploy social workers, mental health counselors, public health professionals, workforce development experts and others to provide a more holistic community safety approach. Indeed, there are many agencies, mostly big cities, that partner with diverse agencies to do just this. Some contract with, or even employ teams of professionals who accompany police officers on relevant calls. Unfortunately, most cities that take this approach do it as a result of grants or one-off initiatives rather than as part of a more integrated, comprehensive and institutionalized approach. In these instances, sustainability becomes the parallel challenge.

Beyond the operational and tactical aspects of public safety delivery, we should look at the administrative and management dimensions of public safety delivery. Managing and leading law enforcement organizations, in economical, efficient and effective ways, calls for new workforce models. Many would argue a sworn police officer who has moved up in rank is best suited and equipped to oversee and manage the police department budget, their technologies or to manage human resources (sworn and civilian). But, as crime has become more complex, so too has the management of police organizations. There is more research and knowledge available to show what works in managing and leading public organizations, including police. New structures and processes for accountability, transparency, legality and human resource management are needed, yet many police agencies continue to rely on sworn officers — who may be experts at investigating crime, but may lack the depth and breadth of managerial knowledge and training to effectively run a public institution. Here, police agencies should employ individuals with training and expertise in management, organizational behavior, HR and financial management, as examples.

This is not meant to be an affront to the many capable police leaders and managers who are doing great work on behalf of their communities. I’m blessed to have worked with so many of them. But, there are really two ways to think about this right now. One way is to diversify the workforce in police institutions to include civilian experts in the various disciplines needed to economically, efficiently and effective run police organizations. OR, the second option is to revamp the job design, training, education and supervisory structures of sworn police officers to reflect the expertise needed to do the specific and specialized jobs of policing and managing police organizations. Either way, rethinking the human capital and organizational aspects of policing would take policing and the institution quite far.

Author: Brenda J. Bond is Associate Professor and Chair of the Institute for Public Service at Suffolk University. Her interests are in collaborative approaches to public safety, and organizational change in public safety institutions. She can be reached at [email protected]

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