April 27, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at https://www.policeforum.org/coronavirus.


Budget Cuts Need Not Always Be Painful

This is the first of two COVID Daily Reports about how police departments and sheriffs’ offices are planning for cuts in their budgets as a result of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic. A future issue will focus on budget issues in big-city police departments.


Key Takeaways

  • Many agencies already are being instructed to plan for significant budget cuts of 10% or more.
  • In some ways, budget cuts are helping agencies to make changes they supported but were unable to implement because of resistance from courts or other agencies. These include video court hearings in jails, video visitations rather than in-person visitation, and reduced jailing of minor misdemeanants.   
  • In searching for ways to save money, it pays to consult with the employees who are closest to a problem. They can provide you with details about wasteful redundancies and repetition of work.
  • Do not abandon community policing because you think officers do not have time to attend community meetings.  Your community members want to help, so keep in touch with them and look for ways to let them help you.
  • Be honest and transparent with your officers and communities about budget cuts. To the extent that cuts must result in reductions in service, it’s better if no one is surprised when they occur.
  • In the past, agencies seeking COPS technology grants had to prove that technology saved officers’ time. That kind of thinking is useful now. Look for ways in which technology can save time and money.


Dakota County, MN Sheriff Tim Leslie:

We See Some Budget Cuts as an Opportunity for Positive Change

We’re having conversations all across the state about the impact this is going to have. On a conference call with 11 police chiefs in Dakota County, several said that they’ve been instructed to make plans for a 10% cut to their mid-year 2020 and 2021 budgets.

We’ve converted all visitations to our jails into video visitations.

I emailed the chief judge in our district today, to say that we’d like to see some of these changes become permanent.

We typically transport people four hours to get someone to a 30-minute mental health or chemical dependency hearing. It’s very inefficient. We want the judges to think about whether we can do those kinds of things via video.

Our jail is at about one-third of its normal capacity. I’ve asked our corrections commissioner to relax the rules on jails, so we can create a mental health unit with a chemical dependency focus.

We’re looking at this as a possibility for change, rather than a negative. The legislature already has numerous bills on law enforcement reform. Rather than having them force reforms on us, we’d rather make changes ourselves first. We’re going to talk to them about those bills and how we can meet them partway.


Seminole County, FL Sheriff Dennis Lemma:

Ask Your Employees Who Are Closest to the Problems to Make Suggestions

One reason we got through the 2008 economic downturn without laying anybody off is because we asked people who were closest to the problems to make suggestions, and some wonderful things came as a result of that.

They suggested things like reassigning deputy sheriffs to patrol the areas closest to where they reside. Not only was it more convenient and a better fit with community policing, it also cut down on vehicle and fuel costs.

They also suggested eliminating things that were repetitive, like having both cell phones and land lines, or using both electronic and paper reporting.

A few years ago, we tried to modernize our operations. We’ve pushed remote working and shifted away from brick-and-mortar office space. So by the time COVID hit, people already had their mobile computers and cellphones and all the equipment that is needed to go remote.

I think it’s important that we continue to modernize. We can look at what commercial industries have done with open, shared workspaces. Remote working and responding to calls over the phone is relatively new to us, but we’re having great success with it.

Our chief judges have worked with us to move some in-person hearings to hearings by video in the kiosk systems in the jail. That has cut back on transportation costs and increases safety, because we aren’t moving so many people back and forth.


Marathon County, WI Sheriff Scott Parks:

COVID Is Resulting in Everyone Taking a Closer Look at What’s Necessary

We’ve been implementing efforts that are beneficial to our operations but may have been balked at by others within the criminal justice system. In particular, some of our courts have fought with us about video court, but now they’ve seen how well it’s working.

So I predict a lot of what we’ve implemented because of this pandemic will become the norm for us. That will pay off financially in the future.

We’ve also reduced the number of inmates who are housed in our facility. We’re saving money on fuel consumption because of the low cost of fuel right now. We’re delaying filling vacant positions and reducing overtime. These all provide cost savings, but we’re still looking at a 10 to 15% budget reduction.

Probation and parole is working with us more on the type of individuals who will be housed in our facility. Before it seemed like any little violation led to someone being locked up until they had a hearing. They’ve realized that there are better ways to go about this, which will impact our facility.

Our facility is currently at about 50% of its usual level. We got there by mandating to our 11 municipalities that we would take in violent crime and felony offenders, but some misdemeanants in our facility might need to be handled differently.

There were times that we would be the ones blocking using electronic monitoring, because of the risk of having those individuals out on the street. This has caused us to reassess that and be more open to the use of the electronic monitoring system.


Tempe, AZ Chief Sylvia Moir:

We Will Need to Adjust Expectations of Our Officers and the Community

I think we are well-positioned to learn from the difficulties we’ve been through in the past. A lot of our peers have been through this, and we can learn from them.

The most essential thing for us is to precisely identify the reductions and alterations that are going to be made, and then adjust community expectations and internal expectations. If we make reductions in personnel but try to expand or maintain services, the expectations will not be aligned with each other.

We are looking at expanding online reporting and changing responses so they may not always involve an officer responding in person.

Wexler: How does this compare to cuts made during the 2008 recession?

Chief Moir:  My sense is that it is about the same. Our municipality is hearing that this will last for about two years.

Wexler:  Are there ways to cut the budget without hurting training and technology?

Chief Moir:  It will be very, very difficult to cut the budget without touching travel, training, and technology.

We will look at how we can cite in lieu of booking, which will reduce the mandated booking fees at our county jail. We pay $2.4 million per year to Maricopa County for our booking fees. That is a place where we can realize some real budget saving, while making progress on restorative justice by strengthening our citations in lieu of arrest.

We might see some significant changes in meetings, travel, and training. We may be able to use technology to connect with folks regionally, nationally, and globally without physical travel. Many of us are also expanding our use of videos and online training. I think we need to study whether there’s any change in our performance after online training, as opposed to face-to-face training.

I can’t imagine that we’ll have sweeping changes in staffing levels, but I think there’s going to be a recalibration of what our response looks like.


Stockton, CA Chief Eric Jones:

Don’t Retreat from Community Policing; Your Community Will Want to Help You

In 2009-2010, Stockton had two years of fiscal emergency, which rolled into our 2012 declaration of bankruptcy. We cut about 25% of our officers, and we had officers leaving on top of that. For a while, we were the most understaffed police department per capita in the entire country, without even considering crime rates or call load.

We completely changed the way we deploy and our call response. We weren’t responding to burglaries. Almost everything related to property crime was put online. We also had our highest murder rate ever, so we had to free up officers to work on our Ceasefire gun violence intervention efforts.

We had a tax measure that restored us almost to where we were pre-bankruptcy. We eventually restored some of our police services back to where we were responding to burglaries and property crime.

Right now, we’re not going back to where we were in 2012, but we’re taking a step in that direction. We’re reducing some of our police services and expecting another staffing shortfall. I hope our response doesn’t have to be as drastic as it was in 2012. But we are in a new reality where we have to think about how we’re going to deliver police services without the same budget we had last year.

Wexler: Do you feel that because you already experienced this in 2012, you’re in a better position to make decisions?

Chief Jones:  I’d like to think so. One mistake we made back then was to quit doing community engagements when we were hit really hard with staffing and budget shortfalls. We said that we just didn’t have the time or resources to go to community meetings or engage in community projects.

But the community members responded, “We want to help. Let us help.” We realized that tough times are when we need them the most. We had made a mistake in pulling up the drawbridge to the community, and it took us a while to gain their trust again.


Santa Cruz, CA Assistant Chief Bernie Escalante:

We Hope to Avoid Laying Off Officers

We’re just now starting to hear about a projected 10% cut from our city manager’s office. We have ideas about how we’ll reach that number, such as not filling vacant positions.

We’d like to avoid laying officers off, as much as we can.


Hampton, VA Chief Terry Sult:

It’s Time to Look Again at How Much Time Officers Can Save with Technology

Our city manager wants to be completely transparent with the public, so our council has decided they’re going to pass the budget as proposed prior to the pandemic. Then we’ll adjust the budget as necessary during the year.

So we’re having to develop contingency plans.

We’re still recruiting and training, but we’re doing a lot of that virtually. We’re doing legal classes virtually, and only doing the hands-on activities in-person.

When the first COPS grants were distributed in the 1990s, you could use the grant money for technology instead of officers if you could show that the technology was saving officers time on the street. You literally had to calculate it down to the hour. I think we need to do that exercise again to measure our efficiency.

For a while there’s been a movement to not respond to larceny for vehicles, because 99% of the time there’s no physical evidence. People don’t always like it if you don’t respond in person, but now is the time to make those changes to call response.

We’re civilianizing more positions, but we’ve already done a lot of that in our agency. We’re looking at expanding our cadet program. We’re trying to put students who participate in our public safety program in high school directly into our cadet program when they graduate. Maybe we expand that program so they can respond to situations that don’t require a badge and a gun.

Wexler: What did you learn from the 2008 recession?

Chief Sult: When you hear officers talk about going from call to call to call all night, you may look and find out that, out of 20 calls, they only received 8 and self-dispatched to 12. You don’t want to discourage officers from backing each other up on calls, but at the same time you don’t need everyone on every call.

I think we can reinforce our core values and core responsibilities, and stop trying to be all things to all people. But I agree that we cannot afford to step back from the community. I think volunteers can be a big asset, and we expanded volunteer programs back in 2008. 


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.

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