Guest Opinion: Strength in police numbers benefits all of us

By Peter Harris
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Recruiting for Seattle Police jobs in 2009 at the Seafair Indian Days Pow Wow. Police numbers were allowed to slide as the recession took hold.

By Peter Harris

Adding police officers would dramatically reduce crime and save public money, according to a report from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Each additional officer would save taxpayers more than $60,000 per year in criminal justice system costs. More importantly, the value of crimes not committed would save victims more than $500,000 per year in avoided losses and suffering.

Together the taxpayer and victim savings would be about six times the annual cost of the additional officer.

The Washington State Institute for Public Policy's report, “Prison, Police, and Programs: Evidence-Based Options that Reduce Crime and Save Money,” came out more than a year and a half ago but has received little if any attention. Perhaps that's because WSIPP’s main audience is the state, and policing is primarily a local responsibility.

The City of Seattle should pay attention. The city’s 2015-2016 budget for the Seattle Police Department is focused mainly on administrative improvements, the settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, and the visibility of officers. It calls for just 13 more officers this year and 25 more next year, to catch up to previous hiring plans. SPD would have 1,343 full trained officers by the end of next year, 13 more than the pre-recession high,

Efficiency and accountability in policing are important, and it is good to add officers gradually so that there are not too many rookies on the street all at once. But an increase in police staffing of less than 1 percent over the previous high suggests the City does not see more police officers as a significant strategy for public safety.

As an analyst for the City Council until 2013,  I was a skeptic about proposals to greatly increase police staffing. I said things like, “The size of the police department is not a performance measure,” and, “It’s not the number of officers, it’s what they do that matters.”

However, I also was a big fan of WSIPP’s work. Steve Aos and his colleagues are nationally and internationally recognized for their great work, not only identifying effective programs and policies for crime prevention and other public policy goals, but also quantifying program effectiveness, to give policy makers ways to achieve their stated goals and save money at the same time.

With respect to crime prevention, WSIPP often suggests that cities develop a portfolio of programs, including prevention and intervention programs for juveniles and adults, plus policing, that are appropriate to the local crime problems, and that are based on solid evidence of effectiveness.

Unfortunately, solid evidence of effectiveness is not the City of Seattle's strong suit. In the last several years the City Budget Office, the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University and the City Auditor have all found that very few of the many city programs for crime or violence prevention are backed by good evidence. The Auditor concluded that one major violence prevention program is so logically and operationally disorganized that evaluating it is impossible.

These reports have had no discernible impact on program funding or operations. Why? The programs sound good. People believe in them. Beautiful young people come to the City Council’s budget hearings and testify about how one or another program saved their lives. They are especially popular with the nonprofit service providers, who are paid by the City to deliver the programs.

Fortunately for public safety, police officers also are popular. Or rather, if sometimes the actions of officers are bad or controversial, at least the idea of adding police officers is popular. And, if the WSIPP analysis is accurate, they are also highly effective in preventing crime.

And they are a general-purpose crime prevention program. WSIPP has identified prevention and intervention programs with higher benefit-to-cost ratios, but most or all of these are designed to focus on the specific situations of a small share of people at risk of offending.

The general public may be rolling its eyes at a study that shows what they already know, namely, cops prevent crime, and more cops will prevent more crime. But this assumption has been fervently questioned within policing itself. A decade ago the National Academy of Sciences established that the standard model for deploying police, involving random patrols and fast response to 911 calls, has little or no effect on crime. Community policing, problem-oriented policing, broken-windows policing and hot-spots policing all emerged as innovations for effectiveness.

The logic behind these innovations varies, but they share a focus on the actions of officers, not their numbers. And indeed this matters. The WSIPP report estimates that officers deployed under "statewide average practices” have a benefit-to-cost ratio of $6.50, while officers using “hot spots strategies” return $7.00. This is not as dramatic a difference as the proponents of hot-spots policing might lead us to believe, but it is a real difference.

Beyond this, exactly how adding officers reduces crime remains a bit mysterious. Which of all the possible effects of adding an officer matter the most? Is it something the officers do directly, or is it because they invoke the rest of the criminal justice system? Is it the deterrent effect of being on the street? Is it an increase in the certainty of punishment for crime? Would we get the same effect if we were to reduce the number of people in prison at the same time as we add officers? Does it matter whether officers focus on so-called quality-of-life offenses or on serious violent and property crimes?

WSIPP doesn’t tell us. This is another reason why the City should not leap to add officers in a hurry, but rather when it knows exactly how they will be used. Nonetheless, this new information suggests that City Hill should consider increasing the size of SPD – and resist cutting it in the next recession.

Is this argument something from the old discredited law-and-order camp? Progressives should know that, like wealth, crime victimization is distributed inequitably. In this case, the poor have more, being especially victimized by serious violent crime. Poor communities, and nonwhite poor communities in particular, have often received too much of the wrong kind of policing, especially in prosecution of the drug war. But they also have often received too little of the right kind of policing.

Those who believe we can get the same public safety results by other means than additional police need merely deliver. Thanks to a couple of decades of good scientific work, the opportunities are there, if the will is there. In the meantime, so long as the City’s crime prevention portfolio is more show than go, hire some more officers, train them well and put them to work on aggravated assault and burglary and other major crimes.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Peter Harris

Peter Harris has been an analyst for the Seattle Legislative Department since 1998.