April 29, 2020


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


QUESTION OF THE DAY: Tell us a story

Before we get into today’s COVID-19 Report, PERF would like to step away for a moment from the world of COVID policies and procedures, budget issues, and big-picture considerations, and instead ask you to tell us a story.

The story can be about anything you’ve seen or experienced having to do with the pandemic. It may be inspirational or poignant, or unexpected or even funny. Just a story about something that happened, that you think your fellow PERF members would benefit from hearing.

Please send your stories to Craig Fischer at [email protected].


Introduction:  Even Though Police Are Usually the Highest Priority in City Budgets, Many Departments Will Face Cuts

Stay-at-home orders are severely impacting the economy, and municipalities are beginning to plan for lower tax revenues and smaller budgets. Monday’s Daily COVID Report provided guidance from sheriffs’ offices and medium-size cities about how to plan for possible budget cuts. In today’s report, officials from larger police agencies shared information with PERF about what they are facing.

According to a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities, 88% of cities expect a revenue shortfall this year as a result of COVID-19.  And 52% said that budget cuts will impact police departments and public safety.

  • In a “State of the City” address on April 20, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said that “From a fiscal perspective, this is the worst it’s ever been. Our city revenues have plummeted.” But because policing is a top priority, Garcetti proposed slight increases in funding for salaries and overtime of sworn police officers, in order to maintain staffing levels. But some civilian positions may be at risk.
  • In Dallas, City Manager T.C. Broadnax warned city employees that furloughs or layoffs may be coming, and city council members are debating whether police and other public safety agencies will need to be included in those cuts.
  • In San Diego, Mayor Kevin Faulconer called for budget cuts resulting from a $250-million tax shortfall, including elimination of 354 city jobs, but said that no public safety jobs would be cut. “Our economy is currently at a virtual standstill,” he said. “We’ve never had a budget like this.”


Key Takeaways

  • In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic is reducing the need for police spending. For example, some agencies report spending less on overtime because officers do not have to cover major events that are being cancelled.
  • Other changes made as a result of the pandemic, such as online reporting and limiting in-person responses, can also help agencies maintain operations with budget reductions.
  • Nevertheless, because of the drastic impact that COVID-19 is having on local economies, some agencies already are being asked to anticipate cuts of as much as 25%, including cuts in the current fiscal year.
  • Because personnel expenses account for 90% or more of police spending in many jurisdictions, options tend to be limited.
  • However, some chiefs recommend seeing cuts as opportunities to challenge traditional ways of doing things.
  • Top leaders of a police department should involve members from all ranks, and unions, in the process of discussing budget priorities and opportunities for savings.   


Tucson Chief Chris Magnus:

Involve the Entire Department, and Take a Fresh Look at the Sacred Cows

Our city manager, other city leaders, and I are being as transparent as we can about our city finances. We’re having weekly virtual town hall meetings with city employees, and I’m trying to do regular meetings with our department to talk about what the potential cuts mean. Within our department we’re talking about cuts as high as $30 million, which would be about 20% of our budget. We have projections from the University of Arizona that say we could have as many as 700,000 job losses statewide and 22% unemployment.

We’re not looking at immediate reductions to our staffing levels, because our numbers are pretty much the same as they were post-2008. We’ve already converted as many positions as we can to civilian professional staff.

We use community service officers who are younger and get paid a great deal less. They’re helpful for taking a lot of the low-level calls for service, like property crimes, that otherwise police officers would have to respond to. I anticipate we’ll do more of that.

Gone are the days when the police chief told the public to call the police department for anything and everything and we’d respond. We’re still responding, but we’re not doing it in person anymore for a wide range of calls. We have increased reporting online, by phone, and by coming to the front desk (when there isn’t a stay-at-home order).

We’re doing all kinds of assessments of different budget cut scenarios. We’re trying to get away from the idea that this should be done only by the executive staff of the department. We’re trying to involve our department and labor groups in the discussion. People understand how serious this is, and they’re willing to help. They come up with some exceptionally good ideas that the executive leadership team hasn’t thought of. Involve employees in all discussions and be frank with them about what’s going on.

Chuck Wexler: Are there any lessons from 2008 that are applicable now?

Chief Magnus: The biggest lesson is to step away from the idea that the underlying structure of your department has to be what it always was.

We have so many sacred cows in our business – the structure of bureaus, the way we handle different operations, the number of people it takes to do different activities, etc.

When I first came to the city five years ago, the city was close to bankruptcy. I had to make $11 million in budget cuts. One of the things that we discovered is how much really significant restructuring we could make and how differently things could be done. Of course, people objected when units went away and we changed activities that people considered absolutely indispensable. But life goes on and people learn to do things differently. It is possible to do things better and in a way that is still very functional and accommodating to the community and our members.


Philadelphia Deputy Commissioner Christine Coulter:

Fortunately, the Slowdown in Activity Is Giving Us Savings in Overtime

We were very fortunate that the mayor prioritized public safety in his budget.

One thing that helps our budget during COVID is the elimination of a lot of special events that were unfunded but we were required to work. Things like Phillies games and Fourth of July festivities cost a lot of overtime.

And because we’re making only about one-third of the arrests that we were making before COVID, we’re hoping that there will be unused funding for court overtime. We expect to go back to normal arrest levels once COVID is over, but we won’t have those thousands of cases making their way through the system. If we don’t save enough there, we’ll have to save overtime on deployments.

We’ve allowed a lot of our civilian employees to work from home. In doing that, our attendance has increased. If you’re feeling a little under the weather but can work from home, you’re more likely to work than if you have to come into the office. We’ve never had people working remotely in our department, and now we have a lot of our support services working from home. The job is still getting done, and I think it’s getting done a little better in some instances because we have better attendance.

The hiring freeze that Philadelphia put in place doesn’t affect police and fire, because they realize that it takes a year to actually get an officer out on the street. When you go back to the lessons learned from 2008, we still have not recovered from a one-year hiring freeze we had then. We’ve never gotten back to our authorized strength, even though we’ve gotten close.


Baltimore Commissioner Michael Harrison:

We’ve Already Been Asked to Look for $15 Million in Cuts

Our city is facing a $42-million shortfall this fiscal year, and we are projected to have a $100-million shortfall next fiscal year. While the city hasn’t come to a decision on our Police Department budget yet, we were asked to participate in an exercise where we had to find $15 million in cuts. We’ve been able to come very close to that without affecting any active members’ employment or pay. We did that by cutting some civilian positions that have been unfilled for a year or longer. We’ve been able to get the work done without them.

We’re also considering consolidating some specialized units. The city asked us to look at eliminating or trimming down our aviation and marine units, and we were able to cut back and still provide a healthy response with those units. We were also asked to consider doing away with our mounted unit, which only has five officers, and our motorcycle unit, which only has six. We’re keeping them, but we’re absorbing them into a different patrol strategy.  


Houston Chief Art Acevedo:

We Need to Be Able to Use Federal Aid to Address the Economic Damage, Not COVID Response

We’re the only city in the state that’s under a revenue cap, so we’ve had structural deficits for about 8 to 10 consecutive years. Our worst budget deficit while I’ve been here was $160 million, and this one we’re facing now is projected to be $260 million. The energy sector is huge for Houston and the state of Texas, so the impact of the oil glut adds to our economic challenges.

We will be cancelling all our cadet classes for the next fiscal year, starting with our June class.

We’re asking Congress for some flexibility in how we use some of the $440 million that has been allocated to the city of Houston. They package that money as if we were New York or somewhere else that has been hit hard by COVID. We need Congress to let us use the money not for the pandemic response, but to addresses the economic damage that’s being done.


Phoenix Chief Jeri Williams:

More than 90% of Our Costs Are for Personnel

In order to balance the budget for coming years, department directors are being asked to consider 25% cuts. Like most law enforcement agencies across the country, 93 to 94% of our cost is personnel.

We’re using more online or remote reporting. And our public records counter is now able to fulfill requests online. We’ve learned that we don’t necessarily have to have everyone sitting at a desk to work. We have detectives working remotely and have adjusted to seven-day coverage. So we’re learning how to operate much more efficiently in some areas.


Metropolitan Nashville Chief Steve Anderson:

We’re Moving Ahead with Hiring, But Pay Raises May Be Suspended

We were expecting to go over budget this year because of all the unfunded overtime we work for special events. But with the cancellation of all the special events over the last month, we’re probably going to be in better shape.

At this point, the mayor has indicated that there will not be furloughs or layoffs within the police department, and we’re still moving ahead with hiring. We have a class in place and two more scheduled. Travel and promotions have been suspended. Our officers are on a 10-step scale for pay raises, and with satisfactory performance, you get a raise every year. Those were originally scheduled to go forward, but I suspect that they will be off. A 2% cost-of-living increase was scheduled, and I suspect that will be suspended.


Detroit Chief James Craig:

Income Taxes Respond to a Downturn Faster than Property Taxes

Our city is projecting a $348-million shortfall over the next two fiscal years -- $154 million in FY20 and $194 million in FY21. Our biggest hits are coming from reductions in income tax, casino taxes, and to a lesser degree, property taxes.

When the mayor started to make cuts, he shielded public safety to a degree. The only real cut to police was freezing the pay step increase. We are still actively hiring, because we’ve had to battle attrition. There has been no directive on promotions, but I’ve decided to stand down on making promotions for now.


Oklahoma City Chief Wade Gourley:

We Rely on Sales Taxes, Which Are Very Dependent on the Economy

Our budget is getting hit two-fold, because Oklahoma is heavily dependent on the oil and gas industry. It remains to be seen what the long-term damage is going to be on the price of oil, but we’re expecting that to have an impact on us as well. We don’t have any funding to support city operations, including public safety, outside of the sales tax. So we’re heavily dependent on the state of the economy.

We’re still in discussions about budget cuts. Our hope is that we can make those cuts without actually cutting people. 


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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