Cops, Cutbacks and Crime

It’s clear that more police, strategically deployed, reduce crime. Cities that are cutting their police forces are risking more than public safety.
by | August 29, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

John Buntin wrote a fascinating piece in Governing's July issue about Cathy Lanier, Washington, D.C's chief of police. Her personal story is compelling, and her approach to policing is clearly innovative and working well. The District has had a huge economic resurgence that is due in no small part to the fact that its crime rate -- especially homicides -- has fallen dramatically, down 42 percent in just the past three years. But another number in Buntin's article caught my eye as well. He describes "all hands on deck," Lanier's "annual early summer effort to deploy her 4,500-member police force in high-crime areas across the city."

That's a lot of police officers. At 65.56 per 10,000 residents, Washington's police force is nearly half again as large on a per-capita basis as Chicago's (44.17), Philadelphia's (43.21) and New York City's (41.77).

Don't get me wrong. I think this is a good thing. In my opinion, we're in the middle of a controlled experiment to see whether more police and more proactive policing reduce crime -- or, conversely, whether less of both leads to more crime. Many cities across the country -- especially small and mid-size ones -- are experiencing sharp increases in homicides after more than a decade of decreases. Many of these cities have had to reduce the size of their police forces in the face of budget constraints.

Modern policing methods, begun under the mantle of the "broken windows" theory and pioneered by Bill Bratton when he was New York City's police commissioner, are tilted toward police being proactive -- working to prevent crime rather than just reacting after the fact. Using data on outputs and outcomes, Bratton focused on holding officers responsible for results and on reducing fear of crime in the community. Lanier is extending Bratton's ideas and theories by working to make her officers more connected to the community, but these methods require a large police force deployed in high-crime areas.

A recent New York Times article related a story about when Martin O'Malley, now governor of Maryland, was preparing to become mayor of Baltimore in 1999. He and Jack Maple, who was the architect of the CompStat system of data-driven policing used by Bratton in New York City, were driving around East Baltimore. "They were playing a favorite game of Maple's - spot the cop," recounted Michael Enright, O'Malley's first deputy mayor. Maple "liked to see how present police officers were in the most violent parts of the city. It was extraordinary how few cops you see, how long it would take to see a uniformed presence."

A city's crime rate involves any number of complex factors, ranging from employment to racial diversity. Public officials can't directly affect many of those factors. But they can control the number of police officers their city employs and the strategies those officers use. Various studies have shown that putting more police on the streets does indeed reduce crime. For example, a 2005 study of crime in Washington, D.C., during periods of heightened terror levels -- when officers work extra hours and "surge" into the U.S. Capitol area -- found that street crime dropped not only around the National Mall but throughout the city.

Mayors and community leaders across the country are looking at the success that Chief Lanier has had in Washington. Here's the lesson they should draw: Yes, times are tough and budgets are tight, but more cops, better managed, equals less crime.


The following table shows the number of total full-time law enforcement employees and officers per agency in 2010, as reported to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Columns on the right show the number of employees and officers per 10,000 residents. The most populous 100 localities reporting data are listed.