Coping with limited resources means different things to different people. Say you're running a household and you have a family to feed. If you can't afford steak, you use hamburger.
Now say you're running a law enforcement agency, such as the Richmond County Sheriff's Office. It delivers a high level of service that has to be maintained, sometimes in spite of available resources. The citizens whom officers protect, so to speak, still want steak.
For Sheriff Ronnie Strength, part of the answer lies in working smarter. So earlier this month, deputies started taking some minor criminal reports by telephone instead of meeting with complainants in person.
It's a clever idea, and its benefits are obvious.
Say someone stole your bicycle or broke one of your home's windows trying to break in. Under old procedures, you would be visited at the scene of the crime by a police officer -- an officer whose time, let's face it, would be better spent patrolling the streets to thwart bigger crimes, especially burglaries.
Now, dispatchers answering complainants' calls will determine whether each incident rises to the level of summoning a deputy. Simple thefts, criminal trespasses and other smaller infractions will be transferred to "light-duty" deputies who take the complaints by phone. If it turns out to be something more serious, the deputy will kick the call back to dispatch, who will arrange to send an officer to the scene.
Part of the beauty of this is its flexibility. These light-duty officers are working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shifts now, but if they're more urgently needed to support patrol deputies at night, the shifts can be changed simply. The program will get re-evaluated every few weeks to make any needed tweaks.
Most importantly, though, this new arrangement puts more deputies on the street to tackle more serious crimes.
Similar programs are being used in bigger cities such as San Diego and Minneapolis, and in suburban Baltimore, but it's becoming the way of the law enforcement world lately -- coming up with clever ways to maximize resources.
The mayor of a township in New Jersey recently rehired two retired police officers to fill similar public safety roles as civilians, instead of as uniformed officers. That saves money on salaries, health benefits and pensions.
Municipalities around Dayton, Ohio, are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year after recently signing contracts with a regional dispatch center to handle all the towns' police and fire calls.
And more police departments nationwide have been relying on civilian volunteers to handle administrative duties, manpower support at special events and even limited patrols in marked police cruisers.
Every law enforcement agency, of course, will have different solutions because they all have subtly different issues to grapple with. But the Richmond County Sheriff's Office should be encouraged to keep finding smarter ways to maximize its resources to maintain or even exceed its current level of excellence.