If you’re in a fender bender in Wilmington, N.C., chances are 50-50 that a uniformed police officer will show up. It’s not because minor crashes aren’t taken seriously or that workforce shortages are especially severe. The city uses a squad of civilian technicians to respond to many of its non-injury accidents.
“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response from our community,” says Sgt. Will Richards, who oversees the force’s traffic unit. “They think it’s fantastic that we have civilians out here doing this.”
Wilmington has employed civilian crash investigators since 2007. The program is so successful that it has tripled the number of employees involved, from two to six, reports Governing. They’re on call from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. through the week, with sworn officers taking care of business on nights and weekends. All told, the civilians now handle about 45 percent of the city’s non-injury accidents. “They can handle it on their own 99 percent of the time,” Richards says.
Most are retired law enforcement personnel themselves. Wilmington’s approach served as a model for a statewide law, enacted this year, that will allow any North Carolina municipality to use civilians to handle non-injury accidents. The state is putting the final touches on its training requirements for civilian investigators under the new law.
“It’s something where in reality the police are acting as agents of the insurance company,” says Alex Heaton of the Policing Project at New York University’s law school. “There’s really not a value-add specifically by having an armed response come and fill out those forms.”
It is all part of a movement to remove some administrative tasks from the portfolio of uniformed police. Efforts in major cities to have social workers or mental health professionals respond to emergency calls have drawn most of the attention and controversy. Having civilians fill out paperwork has been less heated, while the savings in terms of personnel costs are clear.
Denver uses civilian technicians to write up accidents. New Orleans uses them not only for traffic but situations like lost pets and, in some cases, theft. Cities from New York to Oakland, Calif., allow residents to fill in their own reports online when they’re victims of theft. Humans will review the forms and ask questions when necessary, but the results are generally good enough to satisfy insurance companies. Meanwhile, officers are freed up to spend more time investigating serious crimes such as rape or homicide.
The potential manpower savings are huge. Chicago fields 1,000,000 calls to 911 each year, while Los Angeles last year received more than 300,000 requests just for graffiti removal.
“What this ultimately does is free up resources for police to do the things that are most appropriate for them to do, rather than requiring them to do administrative paperwork that doesn’t need armed, highly trained police personnel,” says Scarlet Neath of the Center for Policing Equity, which advocates reform of law enforcement practices.