Viewpoint: Someone needs to watch the watchers
Severe budget cutbacks have forced cities to rethink classic models of service delivery. What exactly are essential services? What level of service is required when staffing levels are being reduced? And for police agencies, especially during a time when sworn officers are being laid off, what is the responsibility for maintaining paid independent police oversight?
Many agencies have answered that question by severely reducing hours of independent police auditors and putting oversight exclusively into the department’s professional standards or internal affairs divisions. Because independent oversight is inherently unpopular in law enforcement, it is easy to see the cuts continuing into the foreseeable future. But, agencies that have independent auditors often agree that auditing is an investment that averts problems and creates a level of transparency and accountability to the community.?
Why should a city use a police auditor?
With city managers, elected officials, the court system and even community activists, law enforcement officials may feel like their agency has enough oversight. But none of those groups actually work on addressing problems before they start, educate officers about policy issues from a professional perspective or take a non-biased (and detached) approach to issues that arise in police work.
Can an auditor save a city money?
Sometimes it is difficult for government agencies to correlate expenditures with savings. After all, an expense is inherently money not saved. But many officials and experts believe that effective police auditors can save cities money. For example, auditors can limit areas of liability for a police agency by teaching best practices and reducing the risk of lawsuits.
Auditors, depending upon their scope, also can help identify areas of undue waste (such as overtime) that cause agencies to go over budget. Additionally, they help elected officials stay out of difficult political situations. Santa Cruz Mayor Ryan Coonerty says that one of the most valuable things that an auditor does is reduce potential tensions between police agencies and elected officials — something that is essential during difficult budget times. “We get regular complaints [about police], and instead of having untrained council members or an advisory body trying to determine appropriate behavior, we can turn it over to a professional and focus on the resulting policy questions, if any,” Coonerty says.
Given the overall financial, educational and political benefits of an auditor, the discussion about maintaining independent professional oversight might need to change. Can agencies afford to keep an auditor? Maybe it is time to ask whether they can afford not to.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.
Zach Friend is a crime analyst and press information officer for the Santa Cruz, Calif., Police Department. Rick Martinez is the department’s deputy chief. Friend can be reached at [email protected] and Martinez can be reached at [email protected].