The Civilianization of Law Enforcement

Law enforcement agencies are having difficulty recruiting and retaining sworn officers. The situation is “a crisis for law enforcement,” according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. This local article highlights some of the numbers here in North Carolina. At the time it was written, the Raleigh Police Department was short 150 officers, Winston-Salem was short 20%, and Asheville was short 41%. The Marshall Project offers a contrary view here, arguing that federal jobs data don’t support the concern, but most law enforcement leaders I’ve talked to recently are profoundly worried about staffing, recruitment, and retention. Can the increased use of civilians to do jobs formerly done by sworn personnel be part of the solution?

Hiring sworn personnel is arduous. An aspiring new officer must collect and provide detailed information about his or her background to the hiring agency and to the state certifying commission. Prior criminal activity, including drug use, may derail his or her plans. He or she must also successfully complete basic law enforcement training, normally a full-time, four-month class that culminates in a state-mandated examination. The candidate must also pass physical and mental health evaluations. Individual agencies may have additional hiring requirements. The result is that hiring a new officer is arduous, time-consuming, and expensive.

Hiring civilian employees is easier. Hiring any employee requires a certain amount of vetting and paperwork. But civilians by definition are not sworn officers, are not required to complete basic law enforcement training, and need not seek state certification. They require training, but the training can focus on the specific tasks they will need to perform, rather than the full gamut of law enforcement duties. Some of the most time-consuming parts of law enforcement training address handling firearms and controlling recalcitrant subjects, things civilian employees generally don’t do. The annual in-service training required of sworn officers is not mandated for unsworn personnel either. Because of reduced training requirements and expenses, and because of typically lower salaries, civilian employees may be less expensive for an agency.

Civilians can do a wide range of jobs. Law enforcement agencies have long used civilians to perform administrative functions and maintain vehicles. But agencies are using civilians to perform an ever-wider set of tasks, including in the following jobs:

  • Public information officer
  • Evidence technician/evidence management specialist
  • Property management specialist
  • Crime scene investigator
  • Forensic analyst
  • Victim advocate
  • Crime analyst/data analyst
  • IT specialist/cybercrime investigator
  • Receiver of reports of minor crimes
  • Animal control officer
  • Parking enforcement officer

Some jurisdictions are experimenting with using civilians even more broadly, in roles closer to what have long been seen as the core functions of sworn personnel. Berkeley, California is working towards having civilians do traffic enforcement. Baltimore is hiring “civilian investigative specialists” to work alongside sworn officers on cold cases, internal affairs matters, and property crimes. And Denver, Colorado is using mental health experts and paramedics to respond to certain 911 calls. Some of these initiatives fall under an approach I describe as “unbundling law enforcement,” a strategy that is not likely to be a good fit for every community. But it is a time of experimentation, and different jurisdictions may appropriately strike different balances.

Civilianization over time. The trend towards the increased use of civilians in law enforcement agencies has been called “civilianization.” This process has been underway, and under discussion, for decades. This article reports that “[i]n 1965, the ratio of sworn officers to civilians employed by law enforcement agencies was 8.3:1, and in 1995 the ratio was 2.6:1.” This paper found that by 2015, over 30% of the people who worked for law enforcement agencies in the United States were civilians, with the share being higher at large police departments and at sheriffs’ offices.

Challenges for civilianization. Civilians are likely to play an increasing role in law enforcement going forward, whether in response to staffing challenges or as a way to access specialized skills. As the Police Executive Research Forum wrote, “police agencies in the future may rely more heavily on civilian staff, contract services, and community partnerships than on full-time sworn staff. . . . It is important for the policing profession to be flexible and open-minded about changes that will help police agencies to serve their communities in new ways.” While “civilianization” is likely to continue, it also brings some challenges. For example, there is a risk that civilian employees will be viewed as second-class employees who are not valued and respected by sworn officers. Furthermore, it is sometimes challenging for agencies to provide growth and promotion opportunities for civilian employees. In short, the strategic use of civilian personnel can benefit law enforcement agencies, but it is not a panacea.