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May 2011
How many police? It depends on how much crime you want

Over the past three years, the District has reduced the number of its police officer positions from 4,200 to 3,800, and the number of officers would continue to fall to about 3,500 in the next 18 months under Mayor Vincent Gray's budget plan. Last week, Post columnist Mike DeBonis took a look at the imperfect science of determining the right number of officers for the District and the related issue of whether more police equals less crime. DeBonis pointed to a survey done more than a decade ago that found no relationship between police numbers and crime.

I have no reason to doubt that the survey and the underlying studies were relevant in the 1990s, but we have much more current and relevant data showing that an increase in police not only makes a community safer, it also helps the financial health of the community.

Since 2007, jurisdictions across the country have been hit by one of the toughest financial crises in U.S. history. As a result, we can review the experiences of other departments to understand the consequences of reductions in the ranks of police. A contemporary analysis is especially relevant because, despite the hard economic times and in direct contradiction to the predictions of criminologists, crime, especially murder, has continued to fall nationally.

Many of the communities that have proven an exception to the downward trend in crime have something in common: They have dramatically cut their police forces.

Oakland, Calif., laid off 80 officers last year. As of March 20, the city had 21 homicides, compared with 14 the year before. Tulsa cut 110 officers last year, and had 18 homicides through early May. It had 12 in the same period the prior year.

Closer to home, Newark laid off 169 police officers in November. The result has been an across-the-board increase in crime, including a 71 percent rise in homicides. In 2008, Baltimore made cuts in police overtime that forced reductions in the number of units on the streets; the result was the highest number homicides in one month, 31, in almost a decade.

The rise in crime does not just make cities unsafe, it makes them poorer. A more dangerous city is less attractive to tourists, conference planners, shoppers and home buyers. In addition, there are significant costs to the criminal justice system for processing, trial and appeals for each crime. In Los Angeles, Chief William Bratton successfully fought off attempts by the City Council to reduce the size of the LAPD through attrition. Bratton did so not only by proving a correlation between more police and less crime, but also by demonstrating the correlation between crime and economic costs.

If the experiences of other cities are not enough, perhaps academic research that is more current than the study cited by DeBonis can settle the issue. In 2005, an economist and a law professor conducted a study on the effects of more police on crime, and they found that an increase in police resulted in a reduction of crime. This study's results are particularly compelling because they drew on data exclusively from the District.

Finally, it is important to remember that community policing, the model that the District's politicians and leaders have implemented and support, requires enough officers to be deployed in the community to be effective. There are certainly other policing strategies (aggressive, proactive policing combined with strict mandatory minimum sentencing, for example), but implementing them would require significant changes in the District's laws, policies and attitudes toward policing. Continuing forward with community policing without sufficient officers will only frustrate everyone.

Ultimately it will be up to the politicians and the public to decide how many police officers will be left to protect the District and its residents. In making that decision, however, everyone needs to know the consequences of reductions. There may not be a scientific answer to the question of how many police we need, but there is a clear answer as to what happens when we allow our force to diminish.

The writer is chairman of the D.C. Fraternal Order of Police.



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