Stretched Too Thin: The Impact of Homelessness on U.S. Law Enforcement

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Charles Fisher

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In response to the growing impact that homelessness is having in communities across the United States, law enforcement leaders are making every effort to respond appropriately for their organizations. Many departments are pulling personnel from traditional police endeavors and staffing full-time units tasked solely with homeless-related issues. These are sizable staffing contributions during a period in law enforcement characterized by recruitment struggles, COVID-19 pandemic budget reductions, additional defunding efforts in response to racial injustice movements, and reports that many agencies are having difficulty filling their ranks with qualified personnel.[1] This thesis examines the burden that homelessness has on law enforcement organizations, specifically its effect on traditional policing and homeland security functions. The thesis also analyzes the enduring question surrounding the most appropriate relationship between law enforcement organizations and the homeless population in the United States.

Police leadership and policymakers have deliberated the appropriate role of police organizations in respect to homelessness in the United States since policing formerly materialized in the mid-nineteenth century.[2] Today, modern responses—for example, pairing police officers with social service professionals using an innovative co-response methodology—have evolved from these discussions. Recently, several jurisdictions have experimented even further and developed response units absent of law enforcement personnel entirely. Events such as the highly publicized death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020, and the police defunding movement that resulted, have amplified this discussion and brought it to the forefront of police management dialogue once again.

This ambiguity, innovation, and role reallocation has created opportunity for change within law enforcement organizations. Nevertheless, the profession lacks a clear understanding of the impact homelessness is having on policing and the outcomes law enforcement’s efforts have had thus far. In pursuit of this information, this thesis presents the findings of a nationwide survey of U.S. law enforcement personnel that gauges the impact of homelessness on their organizations.

The survey responses reveal a substantial and increasing strain on law enforcement organizations in terms of calls for service, arrests, officers’ time, and personnel allocation. More importantly, survey participants characterized the homeless populations in their communities as largely suffering from mental illness, addiction, and a general reluctance to accept services when offered. Several additional themes emerged from the data, including the perceived ineffectiveness of specialized homeless units, the failure to develop tangible measures of success for these units, the perception that police organizations do not have the resources needed to succeed, and the lack of communication between less experienced officers and their more tenured coworkers.

As mentioned, law enforcement efforts vis-à-vis the homeless population in the United States have led some to debate if police organizations are the right tool for the job. This debate, coupled with dwindling budgets and personnel shortages, is causing law enforcement leaders to reassess whether their organizations’ response to homelessness is appropriate. However, the survey administered for this thesis reveals that these leaders may be inadvertently setting their personnel up for failure. Some areas of the country dedicate significant time and personnel to homelessness, and the survey shows that many law enforcement officers simply do not perceive the problem as resolvable. Law enforcement organizations in California and Texas, for example, are ill-equipped and under-resourced, and they face unsurmountable combinations of mental illness, addiction, and service resistance in the homeless community. These two states are home to many law enforcement organizations that, regrettably, are set up to fail.

Based on the survey and analysis, this thesis provides four main recommendations, the first of which is for law enforcement leaders to establish effective communication channels and recognize the tasks that are consuming their officers’ time. The most prominent takeaway from the survey was the overall lack of effective organizational communication among law enforcement personnel. Less experienced officers reported vastly more daunting perceptions of homelessness than their senior colleagues did. These data suggest that law enforcement leaders are not effectively communicating with line-level personnel and they are, therefore, lacking the pertinent information necessary to make informed policy decisions.

Second, police organizations must not only develop avenues to accurately establish tasks that are occupying the bulk of their officers’ workday but also establish metrics to gauge actual progress in their interactions with the homeless community. The survey’s open-ended questions reveal that many agencies that deploy teams to address homelessness have no capacity to measure these efforts’ progress. It is irrational that many organizations are directing vast valuable resources toward a task for which they have no tangible or uniform ability to measure success.

Third, law enforcement organizations must be wary of reallocating resources without first ascertaining whether such efforts are likely to succeed. When policing organizations take on nontraditional, social-service-concentrated roles, they offer an expedient remedy but simultaneously prohibit other organizations from contributing and potentially yielding better results. Leadership should revisit, and scrutinize, the choice to prioritize and allocate personnel away from traditional policing efforts and toward homelessness.

Finally, law enforcement leaders must remain engaged and promote services that effectively lessen homelessness in their communities. Many survey respondents were troubled with the shortage of long-term mental health facilities, for example, but simultaneously indicated that some programs only draw members of the homeless community from other jurisdictions. Policymakers and police organizations should work to determine how the delivery of specific homeless services will impact their jurisdictions. Partnerships with local homeless service providers are critical, and collaborative efforts toward a balanced approach—incorporating services to address long-term mental illness and addiction concerns in conjunction with other services—are essential.

In closing, from both inside and out, the role of policing in the United States is once again in question. Externally, demands in many jurisdictions for reform, defunding of police departments, and increased oversight in police organizations are widespread. Internally, law enforcement personnel are wondering how to navigate these demands and respond effectively to the changing needs of their communities, all the while continuing to ensure public safety. With this challenge comes opportunity. As budgets are reduced and human resources simultaneously grow scarce, law enforcement leaders must reconsider which of their programs are both vital and effective. The time to revisit law enforcement’s role with homelessness has come.

Law enforcement organizations have long been willing to adopt additional roles and responsibilities. With the current trials and challenges facing policing organizations, however, leaders should reconsider prior commitments and be hesitant to accept new obligations that veer too far from traditional law enforcement duties. Decision-makers today must acknowledge that other entities—nongovernmental, governmental, or a combination thereof—may be better suited to engage in the struggle to lessen homelessness. Law enforcement leadership and policymakers must embrace this opportunity to rethink the role of police in the homeless community. Acknowledging the inadequacies identified in this thesis, and considering other organizations that could more effectively help those suffering from homelessness, is the first step to contributing effectively to the homelessness epidemic affecting the nation.

 

 

[1] Police Executive Research Forum, The Workforce Crisis, and What Police Agencies Are Doing about It (Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 2019), https://www.policeforum.org/​assets/‌WorkforceCrisis.pdf.

[2] Eric H. Monkkonen, “History of Urban Police,” Crime and Justice 15 (1992): 547–80.

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