Greenhut: More to crime-fighting than just hiring more cops

SACRAMENTO – As California’s toughest cities struggle with violent crime, we are hearing a familiar refrain: “Hire more police officers.”

While more cops may be the right answer in some places, public officials need to consider a wider array of crime-fighting options and examine ways to stretch their existing budgets.

William Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and New York, now heads to Oakland to help address a gang-driven crime wave. Bratton already has bemoaned the relatively small size of that city’s police force and the court-mandated constraints on the Oakland Police Department because of a police-brutality scandal. As a consultant, he will be focused on using a new crime-fighting tool that helps police pinpoint areas to focus their resources.

That kind of high-tech approach sounds more promising than the typical scare campaign, designed to help loosen residents’ grip on their wallets. For instance, during a San Bernardino City Council meeting in late November, city attorney Jim Penman said, in light of the city’s pending bankruptcy and police layoffs, that residents need to “lock their doors and load their guns” – a bit ironic, given California officials’ stepped-up efforts to limit gun ownership.

The city manager in Stockton warned in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown that the city would “slip into municipal chaos” by then-proposed pension cuts driven by that city’s bankruptcy. He warned of a “mass exodus” of police officers. The city ultimately decided to stiff the bondholders who issued the city pension-obligation bonds the last time it couldn’t make ends meet, rather than shave some of the most generous benefits in the country.

In 2010, Stockton’s police union gained nationwide attention for its graphic billboard signs – with a body count and images of crime-scene tape – welcoming people to “The 2nd Most Dangerous City in California” and demanding the city “Stop Laying Off Cops!” The Stockton Record reported that, despite police spending reductions, the city’s violent crime had dropped by 14.3 percent from the previous year, although it’s since gone up again.

Ironically, the same officials who argue that cutting police budgets will lead to mayhem also advocate pension policies that sap municipal budgets so severely that these cities have little choice but to slash the number of working police officers so they can pay for the retirees.

Reforming pensions, spending less money on gadgets (the state’s alcohol-control cops just spent $70,000 for gas masks and bulletproof helmets, according to the Sacramento Bee) and outsourcing services seems more prudent than always hitting up taxpayers for more loot. But don’t expect to hear those discussions anytime soon.

It would also be nice for police officials to show some humility and admit that there’s far more to stopping crime than giving them more money. Last May, the Washington, D.C., City Council had a debate over police staffing and faced similar warnings of a coming bloodbath. A Washington Post columnist, Mike DeBonis, talked to a prominent criminologist who had reviewed 27 studies evaluating the possible link between police staffing and crime rates. “Almost half of the studies found no relationship between the two,” DeBonis wrote. “Of the remainder, more found that crime increased as police levels rose.”

Criminologists argue that everything from cultural values to the average age of the population to varying policing strategies have much to do with crime rates. A cursory look at FBI data shows no obvious correlation between police staffing levels and crime rates.

Even a recent UC Berkeley study that found a strong correlation between police staffing and crime reduction noted that some cities are “underpoliced” while others are “overpoliced.”

Sure, anarchic Oakland probably needs a bigger police presence, but the same can’t be said for more-placid Irvine.

In cities where additional police spending may be a good value, one should wonder whether spending $484,000 in total compensation on a single retiring police officer, as Bloomberg recently reported, is an effective use of resources. That package is extreme, but agencies have ramped up compensation dramatically over the past decade, thus reducing the money they have available for actual crime-fighting.

In Denver, the police union recently rented 30 billboards across the city, which declared, “Gangs or Cops? Which Would You Rather Have on Your Streets?” This is part of its effort to derail modifications to Rule 12 – a disciplinary process that routinely results in the overturning of suspensions of ill-behaving officers. If I lived in Denver, I wouldn’t want to bolster staffing levels by keeping bad cops on the force.

Remember that many of Oakland’s policing problems stem from a terrible scandal within the department. Maybe the public needs more accountable and professional police forces and not just more officers toting expensive gadgets.

The best crime-fighting tool remains a citizenry that behaves itself, and most people behave without having (or wanting) an officer on every corner. With crime rates at 40-year lows, this is the ideal time to take a calm and reasoned look at crime-fighting strategies.