US & Canada

Arizona police force turns to civilian investigators

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Media captionPaul Adams spends time with a civilian detective on patrol

The city of Mesa in the US state of Arizona has turned over some police duties to a new team of civilian investigators. The BBC's Paul Adams says the programme is a law enforcement innovation - and policing on the cheap in an era of government cuts.

In the only programme of its kind anywhere in the United States, Mesa's nine civilian investigation specialists are handling work normally reserved for uniformed officers.

Plenty of other police departments employ civilians to handle DNA and fingerprint collection or perform clerical work, but nowhere do they perform the range of functions Mesa's unit has handled since its inception in 2009.

From crime scene processing to fraud investigations and a lot of patient hand-holding, the civilians appear to be making an impact.

'Cops hate change'

Image caption Sgt Cota of the police union says the civilian investigators cannot replace uniformed officers

Last year, the unit handled about 50% of all burglary calls, the police department says.

It also wrote almost one in 10 written reports city-wide, relieving uniformed officers of much burdensome paperwork.

"If you look at the numbers that they've produced, they're really mind-boggling," Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead says.

The department's officers greeted the suggestion civilians would take on regular police work with scepticism, Chief Milstead acknowledges.

"There's nothing cops hate more than change and the unknown," he says.

"What I didn't expect was the consistency and the amount of work that they can do, day in and day out."

In her sky-blue uniform and unmarked car, soft-spoken Corinna Barno says she and her colleagues are the "customer service police".

Pepper spray protection

Not obligated to respond to urgent calls from police dispatchers, she can afford to linger at a crime scene, spend time with the victim and develop a rapport.

"We're there to show them that we care," she says.

Ms Barno, the daughter of a private detective, doesn't carry a gun, handcuffs or baton, relying on her radio and a can of pepper spray for protection.

Image caption Mesa Mayor Scott Smith would like to turn over some fire department tasks to civilians

She has a background in insurance, and says she was one of more than 1,000 applicants for the new unit when jobs were first advertised in 2008.

The pay is 30% to 40% lower than the starting salary for a uniformed officer, but she finds the work satisfying.

"I think it's a great programme," she says, adding that the department's detectives frequently commend the unit on its report-taking.

The programme is also a product of necessity.

Reduced roles

The department has lost about 80 uniformed positions over the past five years, spokesman Sgt Ed Wessing said, stretching staff and resources.

And not everyone is convinced the civilian investigators constitute the best response to the resulting shortfalls.

"The answer is not to reduce the amount of officers," says Sgt Fabian Cota, president of the Mesa Police Association.

"They can complement what the officers are doing but certainly they are not replacements for officers."

Surveying the sprawling desert city of half a million from his office high in City Plaza, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith says he appreciates the worries.

"Unions understandably see this as a threat to their jobs," he says.

Image caption Chief Frank Milstead says the amount of work the civilian investigators handle is "mind-boggling"

Even though the introduction of civilian investigators was a project born of the need to cut costs, Mr Smith says he is happy with the way things have turned out.

"We've taken non-traditional approaches to providing services," he says. "And that's where the financial crisis gave us that opportunity."

And Mr Smith says he hopes to expand the concept.

"It's not just a money-saving thing," he says. "I would love it if our fire-fighters concentrated on fighting fires."