Scaling back police? Chief candidates mentioned 'differential policing'. Here's what it is




  • In US
  • 2022-12-02 04:04:06Z
  • By Cincinnati.com | The Enquirer
The Cincinnati Police Department is about 100 officers short of its authorized size.
The Cincinnati Police Department is about 100 officers short of its authorized size.  

Two of the four finalists vying to be Cincinnati's next police chief alluded to a policing method called "differential response" as a tool to reduce the workload of officers and cope with staffing shortages.

Here is what the term, which surfaced in recent public meetings, means.

A differential response plan can take many forms. But in the context of staff shortages, it means that an officer will not respond in person immediately to every police-related 911 call. Some plans use civilian teams to respond to certain issues. Other plans rely on victims making police reports digitally allowing officers to investigate them at a later time.

Tom Wilson with the Police Executive Research Forum said the term stems back decades and applies to all sorts of programs that have become the norm in policing - from prioritizing calls by importance to sending mental health professionals out in the field with officers.

Both interim chief Teresa Theetge and Larry Boone, the former police chief for Norfolk, Virginia, brought up the idea during a question and answer session with the community on Tuesday.

Interim Police Chief Teresa Theetge, candidate for new Cincinnati Chief of Police, gives a statement duringTuesday
Interim Police Chief Teresa Theetge, candidate for new Cincinnati Chief of Police, gives a statement duringTuesday's meeting of the Cincinnati City Council Law and Public Safety Committee.  

The finalists were asked how they will address a continuing shortage of officers, which is affecting departments across the country. All four had plans for increasing retention and improving recruitment, but Boone and Theetge also talked about reducing workload.

More:Cincinnati's police officer shortage is complicated. It could get worse

What the candidates said

"Something we've not done in a while because it was a difficult decision to make years ago when we tried to do it is a differential response plan," Theetge said. "The citizens of Cincinnati have become accustomed to: they call 911 and police or fire come. We love providing that type of service."

But Theetge says it might be time to look at alternatives to sending an officer to their door.

She said the department could explore expanding online reporting and mentioned the need to educate the community "on the difficulties we are having right now answering every single call for service."

Boone didn't use the term "differential response," but alluded to parts of the strategy.

"You have to implement measures that will keep the officers healthy by way of their wellness, by way of reducing their calls for service, allocating certain calls for service to other agencies," Boone said. "Officer wellness is vitally important and the way you address that is through lightening the load."

Larry Boone, candidate for Cincinnati police chief, gives a statement during Tuesday
Larry Boone, candidate for Cincinnati police chief, gives a statement during Tuesday's meeting of the Cincinnati City Council Law and Public Safety Committee.  

The department implemented one of these plans in 2020 to limit the exposure of officers to COVID-19. In that plan, all reports were still investigated, but officers did not respond immediately and in person to certain types of minor crimes. These included thefts involving less than $5,000, criminal damage, dog bites, lost property and phone harassment.

The plan was met with a significant amount of criticism with some comparing it to "The Purge," a fictional movie in which all crime is legal one night a year.

'Differential response' dates back to 1970s

"You're hearing police chiefs say those same things all across the United States," Wilson said of Boone and Theetge's remarks. "Staffing has become a problem in many places."

Differential response is not a new idea, Wilson said. Research into police response times dates back to the 1970s, and in 1981, a U.S. Justice Department study found that police departments need to be more efficient because 85% of calls did not require or benefit from an immediate police response. The study brought on a wave of departments taking police reports by telephone and grouping their calls by priority.

Cincinnati officers will respond immediately to a homicide even if sometimes that means leaving another situation, but a call about vandalism will have a delayed response unless there's an officer who isn't on a higher priority run. This is already a differential response.

When chief Michael Snowden took over the department in 1992, he talked about it as a way to provide a more consistent police presence in high-crime neighborhoods. In 1995, he tied police officers to their beats unless there was a high-priority emergency somewhere else in the city.

"It's not a term that you're hearing every day, but most agencies are doing" differential response, Wilson said. "Most agencies are providing service in different ways."

For example, in Tuscon, Arizona, civilian "community service officers" are responding to 911 calls for all but the highest priority incidents as the city copes with a staffing crunch.

Wilson said the idea ties into some police reform efforts as well. Since the 2020 protests for George Floyd, efforts have been made for social workers, mental health professionals and other experts to respond directly to people in need instead of police. In Cincinnati, this is happening alongside police with the Dvert program for domestic violence and the mobile crisis team for mental health.

Where staffing stands in Cincinnati Police Department

Cincinnati's force is about 100 officers short of its authorized level of 1,059. During the last recruit class, there were spots available for 50 new officers, but only 34 were enrolled after the first week of classes. Over this summer, about 200 officers were eligible for retirement if they wanted to take it.

Theetge has worked with the city to increase pay for police recruits and offer them sign-on bonuses. The department is in the process of selecting recruits for its next class now. Time will tell if that class can be filled.

Despite the shortage, Cincinnati compares favorably to other cities in our region when it comes to police officers per resident. Dayton, Columbus, Indianapolis and Louisville all have fewer officers for their populations.

One thing is clear: Police staffing is an issue nationwide and particularly problematic in the Midwest. The Police Executive Research Forum found Midwest departments shrank by nearly 7% from the beginning of 2020 to the beginning of 2022, more than any other region of the country.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: 'Differential policing': What the term teams

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