It’s no secret that budgets are tight. Across the Commonwealth, municipalities face the challenge of balancing the budget while simultaneously providing for the needs of constituents.
So what can a municipality do when faced with financial constraints?
One option that municipalities have available to assist in this goal is to reduce the size of its police force, which often accounts for a significant portion of the budget, to save money in salary, benefits, and administrative costs. If a municipality can afford to have a smaller police force and still protect and serve its citizens, a reduction-in-force seems like an attractive option.
Complicating matters, however, is the fact that municipal police officers have certain protections in their employment. Some rules and regulations may restrict municipalities in the manner in which reductions-in-force may be accomplished. Violations can result in lawsuits, union grievances, and unwanted and unfavorable press coverage. Any applicable collective bargaining agreement may also present compliance issues. Because the considerations will vary by municipality, decision-makers are cautioned to consult with an attorney while considering a reduction-in-force.
In addition to consulting the appropriate counsel, Municipalities can protect themselves by taking the following prudent steps:
- Municipalities should ensure that the reduction-in-force effectively reduces the number of hours worked by the department; eliminating full-time officers and replacing them with part-timers to save on benefit costs will likely result in legal challenges.
- Most importantly, the reduction in force must be made in good faith. That is, there must be a valid and demonstrable reason to furlough police officers. The law does not permit a reduction-in-force for any reason, or no reason at all, and especially not a bad reason. Getting rid of a troublesome or unliked officer by including him in a reduction in force may seem convenient, but it will likely result in a lawsuit or grievance, compounding the problem and costing money.
- Even if the furloughs are done for a valid reason, the municipal decision makers should be careful not to make any statements or comments that might demonstrate bad-faith; disparaging the union or making discriminatory remarks at the same time as reducing the police force will not play well before a court, an arbitrator, or the press.
To avoid these pitfalls, a municipality should make sure to carefully consider the reduction-in-force first. It should have a valid reason, supported by evidence and data, and it should document that reason thoroughly. The best way to protect municipal interests, save money, and avoid legal challenges is to plan ahead rather than scramble after the fact to justify a hasty decision.
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